The Virgin Cure by Ami McKay
By Zara Alexis D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis
Author: Ami McKay
Format: Hardcover, 356 pages
Publisher: A. Knopf Canada
Pub Date: October 25, 2011
Ami McKay writes with storytelling ease of a young girl named “Moth” by a legendary pear tree on the crossroads of Pear Tree corner. As imaginative as this sounds, and though the novel is filled with a sort of Cirque du Soleil creativity in the trappings of the book’s characters from their costumes to their well-manufactured displays of propriety—the book is anything, but happy.
It tells of the polarity between decadence and poverty in the streets of New York in 1871, the age of mysterious outbreaks of disease that would come to be known later as typhoid, diphtheria, smallpox, tuberculosis, gonorrhea, and syphilis.
It is, in simple terms, a story of survival, of not only the city’s poverty and disease, but the ramifications of its poor choices, or lack thereof, which leads or continues the culture’s socially accepted, yet somewhat masked moral decline.
Poor and impoverished families sell their young daughters away into prostitution where they are not only valued for their youth, their potential profitable income, but also for their “certified” virginity and innocence. But the value tied to a girl’s virginity is not entirely driven by a desire toward her innocence and purity, but rather driven by a rumoured myth of a virgin cure – the belief that a man with disease could cure himself by deflowering a virgin, of which the novel is aptly titled.
The tale is of a 12-year-old girl named Ada “Moth” Fenwick who is left behind by her “gypsy” mother in poverty by a man whose wandering eye and lustful appetite found a much younger companion by the name of Katie Adams. Though this part in the plot is small, it is the catalyst that propels Moth into an enslaved life of first: servitude, theft, and then prostitution. It can also be said that her father’s actions were, but a mere microcosm of the male psyche at large in the tenements of lower Manhattan in 1871; a foreshadowing of men’s dismissive view of marriage and their wives.
What is left is an array of women who react to their station in life, their personal ambitions for survival in prosperity, security, and if fitting, love.
Ada’s mother, a gypsy fortune teller is frugal with her love toward her daughter, perhaps as a result of the severity of her abandonmentby her husband and the severity of being poor with a child to raise on her own, single-handedly. It would be better to think she did this as an effort to strengthen Ada in tactics of survival, but it’s too hopeful an assumption. As a reader, I suspect her coolness toward her daughter is due to the hardship of their impoverished life together and her personal heartache.
“The Fortune Teller.” Painting by George Elgar Hicks, oil canvas, 1824-1914.
As ambition goes, Ada’s mother maximizes her exotic origin by exaggerating her prophetic, supernatural abilities and by doing so, increases whatever profit she is able to make. An interesting trait about Ada’s gypsy mother is her partiality to collecting charred trinkets from the wreckage of house fires. It is as if, perhaps, her willingness to settle for charred, token items, speaks to her submission finally to the horror of her environment, her poverty, and her inability to overcome it.
Miss Emma Everett, the madam in charge of raising young girls in prostitution on “No. 73 East Houston Street,” is surprisingly fair to the girls, understanding always their crucial role in her tenacious ambition toward financial success. She is clear about her expectations, preying in on their youth, their beauty, and their willingness to succeed in raising their status from “almost whore” to “whore” in order to avoid a life on the streets. Miss Emma is able to tantalize the girls with material extravagance and special treatment when she feels a girl is able to seduce clients into securing her and her household a fortune. She is neither cruel to the girls in the house, but strict in their tutelage in beauty and etiquette. They are, to her, neither daughters, nor friends, but commodities to her social status and her business. Miss Emma reflects the materialistic woman who will erase moral boundaries in order to survive and flourish amongst her peers, perpetuating men’s stereotypes of girls and women and satisfying their sexual appetites while filling her purse.
Mrs. Wentworth, though endowed with a high station and riches, is inflicted with sorrow, anguish, and rage, desiring power and vengeance on the youth, beauty, and innocent victims who beguile and surpass her in arousing desire. The plot of Mrs. Wentworth’s cruelty was so difficult to read, I had to, during numerous times in my reading, put the book down. It is enough to say, Mrs. Wentworth’s worst enemy is herself in her own torment that she feels compelled as a coping mechanism or an act of survival to inflict the same kind of torment on others. Though she is cruel, she is, in fact, not the most degenerate of the characters in the book.
Though Dr. Sadie is a woman of heritage and rich origin, her family also ostracizes her because of her choice in pursuing an education and a career that equals that of a man’s (at that time), rather than marriage. She boards and works in the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children, provides medical care for the young girls who live on East Houston Street, and pays regular visits to those who are too ill to leave their homes for medical care. Dr. Sadie, the polar opposite of Miss Emma Everett in moral attitude, is similar to her in that she works within the rules of a social system to further her goals, namely, to care for those who are in need. Her financial compensation is most likely small compared to her previous lifestyle, but provides an outlet where she feels she is doing some good especially toward the young victims that fall prey to the “virgin cure” mythology.
Ada “Moth” Fenwick is the child at the centre of the story whose lowly station in life has left her with few choices in acts of survival within the streets of Manhattan. She is an embodiment of “child-woman,” young as 12-years-old, innocent in the ways of sexuality, yet hardened by the harsh environment she finds herself in: from abandonment of her father; an unrequited love from her mother; cruelty and humiliation in the service of Mrs. Wentworth; manipulation by a butler whom she trusts; dishonesty in the craft of begging and stealing on the streets south of East Houston; the betrayal of friends in competition for being the most valuable asset and commodity to Miss Emma Everett; to the eventual knowledge and misuse of her own sexuality.
The stories of these girls and women work together to showcase a hungry, desperate, and diseased New York City in the 1870’s beneath the decadence of mansion and estate, dress trains, and social elitism.
“Moth” is not a butterfly, but an active mistress of the night, able to hover much like a hummingbird, above her circumstances.
I read “The Virgin Cure” by Ami McKay as my choice under the theme “Historical Fiction” for the 2012 Random Reading Challenge from January 1 to February 29.
Do you agree with prostitution as a means for financial survival? Why or why not?