June 2007

Joanne McNeil

fiction

Charity Girl by Michael Lowenthal

You might not yet have heard of Michael Lowenthal, but his third novel, Charity Girl, establishes the Massachusetts writer as one of the country’s finest authors.

A gripping, yet beautifully written historical novel, Charity Girl takes us back to Liberty Day in Scollay Square, Boston. “The sky! The cloudless, godsent sky. The breeze that set flags snapping like applause. There were flags hauled up in church spires and draped from windowsills, flags clasped in toddlers’ pudgy fists; a teamster’s horse had stars and stripes inked on its blinders.”

It is the first anniversary of America’s entry into World War I, and amidst the frenzy of parades and parties, Frieda Mintz, a 17-year-old Jordan Marsh shopgirl, has fallen in love for the first time. Like many teenage infatuations, hers is built on a few stolen glances, a night of idle flirtatious banter, and out-of-control hormones. Right after she meets her “feller,” Frieda is tracked down by the government and sent to a detention center for prostitutes and all other young women that fail to recognize “’desire’ is a fatal excuse.”

Lowenthal, a writing instructor at Boston College and Lesley University, spent an entire year researching the obscure history of “charity girls” before writing his novel. During World War I, anti-prostitution activists and military officials teamed up, detaining an estimated 30,000 women. It was in this period that New Orleans’ notorious Storyville was cleaned out, as well as other red light districts across the country. Only one-third of the arrested women were ever found guilty of prostitution; the rest were picked up indiscriminately for reasons such as dressing provocatively or walking in certain neighborhoods without an escort. They were quarantined in homes -- often times former brothels -- behind barbed wire and allowed no contact with the outside world.

But it is Lowenthal’s intuitive writing gift, rather than this shocking history lesson, that makes Charity Girl a difficult book to put down. There is an antique cadence to the prose that betrays its publication date. Frieda Mintz is as flawed and compelling as a Tennessee Williams heroine, and the spirited young folks have dialogue that snaps like a boiling tin percolator.

We first meet Frieda as she’s enjoying her first taste of freedom, having abandoned her imperious mother and an arranged engagement to a man twice her age. She gleefully nibbles non-Kosher foods, flirts with young soldiers in downtown dancehalls, and gossips with co-worker Lou.

Lou is a glamorous wisecracking “veritable robber baroness,” a “charity girl,” that gets by on her looks and charm. She teaches Frieda how to “play the game” of seduction. “How d’you think... I got this Elgrin watch? Made a second date with this feller I met -- a looker, but his breath smelled like old eggs -- and then I showed up fifteen minutes late. ‘Ooh, I’m so sorry but my stupid watch is broke! Now how’ll I ever mind the time?’ The very next night, lo and behold, he had a gift. ‘Now you can check the time,’ he said. I did: it was time for a new feller!”

But Frieda is a romantic at heart. She never wanted to be a “charity girl” like Lou, who “went through men like pairs of cheap stockings.” After that one enchanting evening with the handsome soldier Felix, Frieda is convinced they are soul mates -- even after he disappears. And even after she begins to show the symptoms of a venereal disease. Lou upbraids her for her naiveté, but Frieda makes excuses for him as only a lovesick teenager can do.

But Felix doesn’t entirely step out of the picture. After testing positive for syphilis he gives the clinic her name. Immediately, a woman with the “Committee on Prevention of Social Evils Surrounding Military Camps” arrives at her workplace, “hunch-shouldered and indignant, like someone suddenly caught in the rain.” In a “churchy tone” Mrs. Sprague explains, “Too many girls -- too many pretty ones like you -- get their desire to help soldiers all mixed up with... well, with desire itself.”

Her manager unsympathetically fires her: “Would our customers want clothes wrapped by filthy fingers?”

Felix later sends her a letter, cruelly blasé, boasting of his banjo playing and grumbling over baseball scores, with only a brisk apology for infecting her: “I want you at least to know that maybe you should be checked... Can I possibly now end on a brighter note? I’d hoped to do so by citing the primacy of our Sox, but yesterday -- gad! -- they slipped to second place. Are you not praying enough? Have you not dyed your hair red and donned Hub Hose?”

Frieda “relishes his lack of explanation,” rationalizing away some obvious signs of his disinterest. But the reader can sympathize with Frieda’s blind pining for Felix, knowing that his memory alone gives her hope.

Naturally, whether she infected Felix or Felix infected her, makes no difference to Mrs. Sprague, under whose watchful eye she finds herself again. Prostitute or not, she’s a criminal says the pious zealot, “Does debasing yourself for free make it somehow patriotic? Tommyrot!... What [Frieda] fails to grasp is that charity girls like her are just as bad -- no, worse than prostitutes. With a prostitute at least the soldier knows he’s courting trouble. She... she’s like a spy is what she is.”

Lowenthal never lets us forget that throughout this humiliation, Frieda suffers in excruciating pain. She is subject to a battery of nearly torturous medical procedures, while the detention center perpetuates superstitious John Harvey Kellogg-era wellness practices (coffee is forbidden, “every vice conquered makes the others weaker,” and pictures are removed from the wall, deemed “unsanitary”).

Lowenthal has crafted a deceptively simple story dealing with the vastly complex matter of female sexual autonomy. He is a writer that tackles the graphic and tragic with a delicate hand. Sad without turning maudlin and nostalgic without camp, this balance requires an immeasurable amount of talent. Charity Girl is a resplendent, unforgettable novel signaling more great work to come. It is a fitting, sympathetic tribute to these poor forgotten girls.

Charity Girl by Michael Lowenthal
Houghton Mifflin
ISBN: 0618546294
336 Pages