I grew up with a history buff. If my dad weren’t a computer geek, I’m pretty sure he’d be a history teacher. He’s not the kind of guy who goes around doing Civil War reenactments, but he is the kind of guy who takes his kids during the dead heat of summer and goes traipsing around battlefields. I never appreciated that part of vacation in the summer (I often complained, which is totally unlike me…. NOT). But now that I’m older, I realize that part of his history endearment has, indeed, worn off on me. I love historical fiction. Of course, if he heard me say that, he’d tell me it’s not really history and therefore doesn’t count. But what does he know? Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres to read because it lets me into a world that I’ve not been a part of, but that is conceivable to me because I know it has come before. The Virgin Cure by Ami McKay is a superb specimen of historical fiction, complete with news articles, snippets and notes from the period, that is even more interesting due to the author’s personal tie to the story.
When I read historical fiction, I’m typically reading about the glamorous side of life – the storyline typically depicting the upper class residents of the past who have more access to free time, luxury, and a life of leisure than most of the population. It takes a book that reminds me of the other, the grimmer side of life to really point out that most of the books I enjoy firmly place the rose-colored glasses on my face. The Virgin Cure does an amazing job of telling the story of Moth, a girl from the slums of New York back in the 1870’s. The world that is available to a girl like Moth is filled with dirt, gore, and the facts of life – that a girl may have to resort to selling her virtue to live in a place with clean beds, clean clothes, and no bruises. She was born to a fortune-telling mother, her father had left them for another woman, and they barely had enough money to scrape by. Her mother initially sold her into the service of a woman who was abusive and cut off her hair, and when she escaped that fate, she had to decide between life on the streets or life in an “infant school” – where girls are raised by a matron, pampered and groomed, certified as virgins, entertained by men, then their virginity is sold to the highest bidder.
One of the most striking facts to me about this time period was that people believed in the idea of the “virgin cure”. It was the idea that a man could be cured from diseases like syphilis by “laying with” a virgin. It made me ill to read that such a practice was considered effective, and to hear that girls were sold for their virginity – that in itself was hard to read, but to know that the men had to be vetted as “clean” or free of disease before their bid was taken seriously, it was one of those moments when I was glad I didn’t live back then! Usually when I read historical fiction it tells me of this luxury-filled land of prince and princesses, but I really enjoyed The Virgin Cure because it spared no detail, it never pulled the wool over my eyes and told me that everything would be ok – it presented me with perhaps one of the most honest depictions of lower class life back then, and for that I admire it. Honesty in people is hard enough to get, honesty in fiction seems to be even more scarce. But Ami McKay spared no truths in her telling, at least none that I was aware of, and it made for a very compelling read.
As I mentioned earlier, there were news articles, snippets, and notes from the time period included in the book. It was this information that really endeared me the most to this work. I did not fact-check to make sure that every article was, indeed, taken from the past, but they were enough for me to believe that they were likely taken from the past and that the information included was truthful. It was like taking a step back in time and reminded me of all the hours that I used to spend at the library poring over microfiche. The news from the past is, in many ways, more gripping to me than the news of our current day. I suppose that in another decade, the newspapers from today might seem to have more value to me than they do today, but we shall have to see about that. At any rate, the information included letters from Dr. Sadie herself, which seemed to make the story even more real, and I found out why in the author’s note at the end of the book.
The author’s note at the end of a book typically gives a bit of back story into why he or she chose to tell this particular story, why it was important, why it was something that just had to be written. In the case of The Virgin Cure, Ami McKay’s note is more than just a simple retelling of inspiration one day – it’s the story of her fore-mother. I was tickled to learn that Dr. Sadie – the very same one who became friends with Moth at the Infant’s School and helped her to escape the life of prostitution – was not only a real person, but left her journals, notes, and letters to her family. Ami McKay took her initiative and her ancestor’s letters and dug through the New york history to build this information into a story about the health care of the lower class – and about Moth. She not only learned about the people in this book, but she was at the places where the events occurred – she went to the site of the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children, she stood at the site of Peter Stuyvesant’s pear tree, visited the East Side Tenement Museum, and out of all her digging and research, Moth’s story unfolded. That, to me, makes this work of historical fiction stand about head and shoulders above all others. To me, it is an unrelenting truth with a solid background of fact and the heart-rending story of what life was really like for a lower class girl in New York in the late 1800’s.
I can typically find something to love about nearly every book that crosses my desk. The Virgin Cure by Ami McKay is not one of those. In my reading and reviewing of this work, I found myself in awe of the research that McKay had done. I loved the back story and the tie in to her family, I mourned the loss of her mother that inspired her to begin digging through the family history, and I applauded the work that she had done and presented in this novel. It was not only a book that I could find something to love about, it was a novel that made me laugh, cry, cringe, and not want to put down. In fact, after I was finished reading, I made a note to look up what a Circassian beauty looked like – and it turns out that had I lived back then, I might have taken the route of Circassian beauty. I searched through my files for the right picture but couldn’t find it, but when my first child was born, my hair was a halo of tight curls, just like the hair on this carte de visite of a Circassian Beauty – and it made the story even more real to me. The Virgin Cure by Ami McKay was born of the author’s family history, brought to life by the news articles and snippets included in the work, and takes its place as an honest work of historical fiction.
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Disclosure: I received this book for free from the publisher to facilitate my review. My opinions are honest and my own.