This week, we turn to our first official Chatelaine Book Club pick: Ami McKay’s The Virgin Cure. McKay’s first novel, The Birth House, about a Nova Scotia midwife, was a runaway bestseller. This time out, McKay turns her attention to life in late 19th-century New York City and the trials and tribulations of a 12-year-old girl named Moth who finds herself out on the streets after her mother sells her into service. In Part 1 of this chat, we cover up to page 116 of this captivating novel.
Look for the book in stores now — it’s got the pink Chatelaine Book Club seal on it!
Laurie: Hello! So The Virgin Cure and little Moth….
Alex: Hi! Oh God, I found this so heartwarming and gut-wrenching at the same time!
Stacy: Nineteenth-century New York City: not the loveliest place, huh?
Laurie: No, not at all unless you have tons o’ money…
Alex: It’s like the Gangs of New York.
Laurie: Gut-wrenching is the right word when you think about what life was like for people back when there was no social safety net of any kind. Horrid.
Stacy: Totally horrid.
Alex: And I’m watching Downton Abbey about the politics of ladies and servants, too,
although the owners of the house are MUCH nicer in that. Jeez.
Stacy: Those letters in the Evening Star — “Dearest John, please come home” — broke my heart.
Alex: I know, Stacy. The description of the bleakness and the violence is stifling.
Laurie: People really were at the mercy of anything and everything. It was awful. And that Mrs. Wentworth is a seriously disturbed woman.
Alex: Forcing Moth to kiss her, going for walks indoors and the fan!
Stacy: She is SUPER creepy. I was all alone at home last night reading that part, and I swear I freaked myself right out.
Laurie: And what did she do to make her husband confine her like that??? Rough up all the little servant girls???
Alex: I know! And the part that made me want to vomit was when she pushed her fingers deep into the welt she had created in little Moth’s wrist.
Stacy: I’m very intrigued by her “misdeed.”
Alex: I am dying to find out what happened with her husband, because she’s obviously trying to make the servant girls all less appealing to him.
Stacy: But also, what was this whole “let me keep my husband” business — that makes it sounds like HE was the one who’d done something wrong, no?
Alex: So who is more the weirdo? Him or her?
Laurie: She’s a sadist for sure. And there’s no recourse for poor Moth. No calling the police, or social services. Not like things are perfect nowadays, but still…
Alex: She can’t even depend on her mother. No wonder people died so young in those days. God, it makes me feel thankful!
Laurie: Her mother! She’s practically worse than anybody — selling her!
Stacy: YES! Selling her kid AND then disappearing?
Laurie: And not looking back! Taking the money and running!
Stacy: Oh, the not looking back was so sad. But one of the quieter sad things to me was when Moth kept writing letters and not hearing back.
Laurie: Realizing that she wasn’t loved.
Stacy: First there’s the inkling that something’s wrong, and then it gets worse and worse.
Laurie: Thank God in many ways for Nestor (criminal though he was).
Stacy: Poor Moth. In some ways she’s so adult (she knows her fate and exactly how she’s going to make it, or not make it, in the world — with her body), but in others, she’s very young — well, she’s her age…
Laurie: How can you be a child for long in that world?
Alex: I find the idea of kids being unloved just completely unbearable — it’s crushing. She is so wise already: carefully showing an ankle here and a shoulder there to get ahead.
Stacy: I can’t even imagine it, really. The idea of having these little people in your care and hurting them, overtly like Mrs. W or just being cold like Moth’s mum, is so awful.
Alex: And then that bloody woman cuts all her hair off.
Laurie: They’re just left out on the streets to fend for themselves, to rely on the rare kindnesses of strangers like Mrs. Riordan and the soup man. Mrs. Wentworth is damaged somehow. To casually start making a bracelet out of Moth’s hair — she’s insane.
Alex: It feels like no one is sane in that world.
Laurie: I wish Moth and Nestor could have stolen more from her.
Stacy: Ha! Revenge theft! But Nestor has his little operation going, and he can’t risk taking too much.
Alex: He’s smart: It has to be win-win for it to be worthwhile because everyone’s risking their life.
Laurie: But seriously: $1.25 for the damn gold bracelet. I couldn’t believe it. Even the really “fair” people were total cheats. Meanwhile people were advertising rewards of $100 for a ring! And Moth thinks she’s hit the jackpot.
Stacy: The poor kid was so happy with that.
Laurie: It just highlights how hard it was to get ahead, honestly or dishonestly. And if you got hurt or sick, or some other misfortune struck, you were totally screwed.
Alex: I love the interruption of the text with ads and things and even the author’s notes — it yet feels authentic yet seems to add to the theatrical nature of the story.
Laurie: Gives it a sort of documentary/circusy feel — an odd mix, but apt, I think.
Stacy: That’s exactly the right description.
Alex: Very fitting. I feel like I still have the scene erected in my head waiting for me to return to it later tonight. (I won’t be able to wait until next week!)
Laurie: New York city of that time feels like such a foreign world it’s hard to imagine in some ways, but it was real.
Stacy: I felt like I was learning. All the outfit changes, and how social status was precarious enough that a fallen hem could doom you to the outskirts of your social circle — I had no idea.
Alex: It’s interesting to have it broken down like that: A lady’s day in timetable fromat.
Laurie: And such extremes of wealth and poverty. Although such extremes exist today…
Alex: Well, the divide has closed considerably for most of us. People like us didn’t exist then.
Stacy: The rise of the middle class has definitely changed things, but most of the wealth in the world still lies in the hands of a very, very small minority. And we’re more concerned with basic human rights… though that’s certainly not universal either.
Laurie: And there are still areas of extreme poverty. We just don’t see it to the day-to-day extent that Moth would have.
Stacy: True — the classes are still really segregated in some ways.
Alex: We’re not privy to it — that’s partly why this seems so shocking.
Laurie: And it really wasn’t that long ago. That’s what struck me.
Stacy: It’s mind-blowing… 140 years ago? That’s nothing in the history of the world!
Laurie: And all those immigrants, starving in their own lands, coming to a new world for a better life, only to be stuck in NY tenements, unable to earn an honest living or feed their children.
Stacy: And being considered not American — some American dream! That part about “American girls” really got me.
Alex: The ostracism…
Laurie: And Moth washing her face with salt to lighten it.
Alex: So matter of fact. So sad.
Stacy: And how insidious those kinds of thoughts are. The matter of fact-ness was the worst. Not just that she thought to do it, but that she didn’t even question it.
Alex: And she doesn’t even know where she’s from really.
Laurie: It’s just the way things are. McKay packs so much in and yet the book isn’t weighed down by all the important issues: poverty, child abuse, female rights, etc. Really captivatingly done.
Alex: Or the isolation and lack of roots.
Stacy: I was surprised at how easy it was to be in the story, while still having all of these elements woven through.
Alex: I just absorbed them all. Nothing was distracting — it was like a constant flow of detail.
Laurie: And Moth as a character is so intriguing: so mature and yet innocent, so determined and proud and yet so sad.
Alex: She seems so much older than 12, and when she says “I thought I would leave my mother at 13. My mother thought 12.” Oh God. So poignant.
Stacy: I was just thinking about that line, Alex! I read it about four times, I just couldn’t get over it.
Laurie: It’s heartbreaking. I think of my niece who’s 13, and I can’t imagine it. It’s difficult to guess what Moth will do from here. I mean what options does she have in her chew ’em up, spit ’em out world?
Alex: That’s what I want to know!
Laurie: Well, read up and next week, we’ll convene again to talk about Part 2 of The Virgin Cure (pages 117-231). What does Moth do to survive the mean, uncaring streets of New York? We shall see!
Alex: I have everything crossed for her
Stacy: Me, too! Until next week!
Laurie: Till then!