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.