‘The Virgin Cure’ by Ami McKay

“I am Moth, a girl from the lowest part of Chrystie Street, born to a slum-house mystic and the man who broke her heart.”

So starts The Virgin Cure, a poignant novel about a difficult subject, but handled gently by master storyteller Ami McKay. Moth is a desperately poor 12 year old girl sold into servitude by her mother. The year is 1871 and the place is New York City. Escaping the filth and squalor of the tenements, Moth finds herself in a brothel with her needs suddenly cared for and her belly full. But what will be expected of her strikes fear in her heart. A bounty will be paid for a virgin, making these young girls sought after by the ‘madams’ of the ‘boarding houses’.

Virgins were at great risk during this time period because there was the mistaken notion that if a man suffering from syphilis slept with a virgin, he would be cured. However, the author is raising awareness of this issue also because “the time has not necessarily left us”. This mythical cure is still encountered in Africa with AIDS.

Ami McKay’s own historical great-great grandmother was  a medical doctor during a time when it was difficult and courageous for women to be in that profession. She places her grandmother squarely in the middle of this story as an independent and compassionate medic. She did this in her other excellent novel The Birth House as well. Sadie is a wonderful character and brings an element of hope to the story. Her fierce independence and determination to survive is evident in Moth as well.

Canadian author McKay is skilled at historical fiction giving us an easy to read, compassionate insight into another time and place.  She brings the time period alive and allows us to enter the story, be educated, and build empathy. In this book she uses sidebars with historical detail and primary sources to enhance the historical element. In an interview on CBC’s ‘The Next Chapter’, McKay discusses how she did some of her research at the Tenement Museum in New York City. Here follows a brief interview with the author worth watching.

4 responses to “‘The Virgin Cure’ by Ami McKay

  1. Looking forward to reading this book! Do you know if the author was influenced by the AIDS situation in Africa when she decided on this topic… or are you adding this observation? Certainly a very interesting parallel I noticed immediately as well. n

    • In her interview with Shelagh Roger on ‘The Next Chapter’ she does mention the parallel but I don’t think it was the chief impetus for her writing this story. Judging by her other book ‘The Birth House’ she tends to focus on women’s issues and always includes a character like her great-great grandmother to highlight issues in the medical profession. Hope you like it! It would be a good one for a book club to discuss, as was Birth House.

  2. Wilma Van Brummelen

    Thanks, Joanne, for a well written account of this very interesting and educational book about that difficult time period! I was drawn into the book almost immediately which I think is because of her amazing talent for writing in the way that she does! What a way to learn about history at that time! Keep up the great work on this blog! 🙂 Love you! 🙂

  3. Oh, I am so excited to read this book. I loved the Birth House! I hope that I will be able to see the Birth House on this next trip to Nova Scotia. Thank you for the great blog. Donna Holleman

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