By Ami McKay
Harper, $25.99, 319 pages
The Virgin Cure is a sensitive, disquieting glimpse into urban life in burgeoning America. Author Ami McKay brings the period sharply into view while deftly exploring the plight of poverty-stricken women and children in New York who made up the tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free who immigrated during the 1800s.
Rather than a boorish chronology, McKay brilliantly tells the poignant story about the slavery of one young girl. Twelve year old Moth, abandoned by her father and sold into servitude by her gypsy mother, finds herself in possession of one valuable asset—her virginity. In an era when the legal age of consent is only ten years old in some states, Moth quickly learns she is in a fight for survival. Amongst thieves, pickpockets, and prostitutes, the girl seeks refuge in a brothel. Eventually, she is fortunate to make the acquaintance of a determined female physician. Dr. Sadie’s character is based on historical accounts of the author’s own great grandmother who was one of the country’s first women physicians.
“I stood at Caroline’s streaky, pitted mirror and stared at the damage Mrs. Wentworth had done. I’d pulled my hair away from my face every morning for most of my life, but what I saw now was altogether different. Covered in bruises, I was boyish and ugly, so square-faced and lopsided I was sure even Mama wouldn’t know me.”
McKay not only takes us into the squalor of Lower Manhattan’s post civil war streets, but she ushers us into Moth’s internal struggle. Social norms, religious zealots and sexual mores collide when Moth discovers that at a very early age she has something many men desire. The doctor’s struggle to keep the young girl safe and healthy becomes her own personal battle. Together, the two watch the horrendous toll taken by sexually transmitted diseases – of which there is no cure – along with the emotional and physical toll of poverty suffered by thousands of abandoned women and children.
The characters are sharply honed with compassion and honesty and without the cheapness of literary devices that would have distracted from the book’s historical significance. The doctor’s dedication to the original goals of medicine makes her a worthy and admirable mentor. Moth’s own courage and strength make for an inspiring read. McKay has taken the fictional biography to a remarkable level by pulling the reader into an historical vortex superior to any on-screen portrayal.
Reviewed by Sheli Ellsworth