Moth Among Flames

Full of period detail you won’t find many other places than nonfiction, Ami McKay’s The Virgin Cure is a story of a girl growing into her own. Moth was named by a tree, but that’s about where the magic in her life stops. Living in the slums of Gilded Age New York, it seems inevitable that she will walk the streets. Her mother sees an escape for her (plus a little extra money) in selling her to a wealthy couple to be a maid. Eventually Moth escapes and ends up at an “infant school”: a brothel that traffics in virgins and “clean girls.” Moth makes friends with an owner of a circus where she sells postcards. A woman doctor (a true anomaly at the time) who visits the house of ill repute tries to befriend Moth and set her on a different path, sensing her intelligence and fearful of syphilitics trying to cure themselves by intercourse with virgins.

While in Moth’s matter-of-fact child’s voice, this book is never gratuitous in its portrayal of sex or violence, both of which abound in the poverty-stricken world Moth lives in. One of the things I really like about the book was that it deals with people that Henry James and Edith Wharton barely glance at, and Theodore Drieser tends to romanticize a bit. Did I mention the detail? McKay really knows her stuff, whether describing fine jewelry of the period or the confines of a circus. And, as grim as this book may sound, it really does end well for Moth. After all she’s been through, she deserves it.

Like this book? Try these:

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. Sinclair’s most faomous work, about poverty in the Chicago stockyards.

Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser. A tragic novel of a poor girl in the slums of Chicago.

If Christ Came to Chicago! by W.T. Stead. A passionate denunciation of Chicago’s red light district at the turn of the last century, which was situated about where Harold Washington Library Center is today.