“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.
A long time ago someone recommended this book to me. She said, “when you read it, I want to talk about it with you.” I must confess, it has taken me some time to get to it, but Laura, I’m ready to talk now. This book is so unusual and creative. It is an extremely good story and incredibly unique. It is funny and sad and moving and innovative. It is an adventure story but also tackles the tough stuff like the problem of pain in our lives and the ways in which we deal with that. The book has lots of pictures, and I love picture books.
Oskar is nine years old and autistic. After his father is killed in the World Trade Center, Oskar finds a key in his father’s closet and embarks on a quest to discover the lock which fits this mysterious key. Oskar is extremely smart and incredibly brave. He is an inventor and his imagination is unstoppable. It is so much fun to dwell alongside the quirky thoughts in his head as he travels around NYC. The author must have enjoyed inventing the unusual effects in his book. I’m not even sure I’ve figured them all out, so I’m glad I can ask him myself when I attend a writers’ conference in April. What has me stumped are the six doorknob pictures and their exact significance. It feels like a riddle of my own to solve. Please comment if you’ve read the book and have it figured out.
One important thing to know is that there are two story lines in addition to Oskar’s. The chapters entitled “Why I’m Not Where You Are” are letters written by Thomas’ father explaining his reasons for returning to Germany before Thomas was born. The chapters entitled “My Feelings” are a letter from Oskar’s grandmother, explaining some things in her life.
Here is the trailer for the movie starring Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock. Although I haven’t seen the movie yet, I have a sense that some of the literary techniques will be lost in the movie as well as the opportunity to enter Oskar’s head. But it’s still a cracking good story either way.
Salt & Pepper, Abbot & Costello, Baskin & Robbins, Mork & Mindy, Vaclav & Lena… all famous pairs. This is a sweet and savoury, simple love story set in the Russian immigrant community of New York City. There is honesty, charm, and a bit of intrigue but more importantly, you get the sense that you are living in the novel. This is a wonderful, simple summer read, fresh and original. Revel in the vibrant characters and let them take you to that old fashioned place where love still conquers all, but never cheaply or easily. There is a weight and substance to the writing that keeps it totally out of the whimsical and firmly rooted in the real world. The immigrant experience is also very well captured.
Vaclav and Lena are destined to be together but that does not mean that things go along without any obstacles. Life can be cruel and there are unexpected twists and turns for Vaclav the magician, and Lena his assistant. Lena disappears for seven long years, leaving Vaclav to wonder where she has gone and if she will ever return.
This would be a an excellent choice for a book club list. It is very well written, no matter what her writing professor and classmates said. Tanner whipped off the opening pages of Vaclav & Lena late one night for a writing class assignment due the next day. Her teacher and fellow students hated it but she said, forget them, and kept writing the story. I’m glad she did.
A poignant footnote about the author. She dedicates the book to her husband and says he is “on every page”. Gavin died of cancer. He was diagnosed two months before they met. There is a beautiful, but very sad, interview with both of them included in a New York Times article. The video is entitled ‘Love Endures Even Cancer’. It is not for the faint of heart – I would recommend that you view it after you have read the book.
Love Endures Even Cancer