In an open letter to the readers of Chatelaine, Ami McKay writes about her newest novel, The Virgin Cure, and the stories, dreams and inspiration that went into the making of it.
Have you ever wished you had a time machine so you could travel to the past and have a conversation with someone you’ve never met? Ever gazed at a faded photograph of a distant family member and had it transport you, just for a moment, to another place and time?
It was an old portrait hanging over my mother’s piano that took me into the world of my great-great grandmother, Dr. Sarah Fonda Mackintosh – a woman whose life story inspired me to write The Virgin Cure. After digging into the details of her past, I discovered that “Dr. Sadie” (as she was affectionately called by her patients) had become a physician in New York City in the 1870s, at a time when women were discouraged (and often forbidden) to “trouble” their minds with “book learning” and scientific knowledge. It wasn’t fashionable or polite for the daughter of a respectable family to take up a scalpel or to learn to suture – and yet Sadie and the other “lady doctors” of the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children did just that and a much more. They were the doctors without borders of their time, women who wanted to make a difference in the poorest parts of their city and in the lives of others.
The gap between the haves and have-nots was enormous at the turn of the 19th century, not unlike the divide we see in many places around the world today. Thirty thousand children under the age of fifteen were living on the streets of New York City in 1871, among them, a large number of girls who had no means to support themselves except through prostitution.
Dr. Sadie sought to help such girls and at the very least educate them about the dangers of life on the streets. The more I learned about what these young women had to do in order to survive, the more I found that it was their story I wanted to tell. At first, their lives seemed to be straight out of a Dickens novel, but I soon realized that their stories were part of my history, too, and part of our present as well.
And so Moth, a twelve-year-old girl from the slums of the Lower East Side of Manhattan, became the protagonist and the voice of The Virgin Cure. She was tough and vulnerable all at once, with a sly sense of humour and a relentless desire to defy the odds. I’d dream about her at night and then race to my desk the next morning to begin writing so I could see where she would take me that day. Chasing after her to write her story took me on a tremendous journey. Not only did it make me grateful for the strength of the girls and women of the past, but it also reminded me that even in this age of technological wonders, it is our caring for each other, one kindness at a time that matters most.