The Virgin Cure is another gripping, well-researched glimpse into the past lives of women by the author of The Birth House. This time McKay’s subject matter is the lives of street children, particularly young girls forced into prostitution, in late nineteenth-century New York. The story centres around Moth, a twelve-year old girl who leaves her tenement-dwelling, indigent mother to go into service, but eventually finds herself homeless and penniless. Prostitution appears to be her only option, but Moth is “lucky” enough to fall in with a brothel owner who specializes in training young girls to lose their virginity to well-heeled, carefully selected gentlemen.
Even in this supposedly sheltered environment, though, Moth is not beyond the reach of cruelty. The one person who truly wants to help her is Dr. Sadie, a young female physician who specializes in treating women and girls who have fallen through the cracks of society. Based on interviews I’ve read, it seems Ami McKay’s interest in the story was originally piqued by finding out about one of her ancestors who was a medical doctor in that very time and place — an unusual career path for a woman of that time. Though she originally thought of writing the story from Dr. Sadie’s point of view, it was Moth’s voice that came to the forefront as she tried to write the novel. I was interested to find out this background, because I actually found the young doctor the more interesting character, and wanted to know more about her — perhaps because hers was a perspective I’d never read about before.
That was one criticism I had of this novel; the other was that it seemed to end too quickly, and more happily for Moth than I thought was strictly believable. Even so, it was an engrossing read and a very well-done portrait of life in a particular place and time. It transported me, which is exactly what the best historical fiction ought to do.