Thursday, February 21, 2019

Book 169: Charity Girl

"The matron and her cornering. Barred windows. But all these things, it hits her, she can bear, has been bearing; these things every patient here must bear. And that's what's so awful: that they take it, that they can, that it's so easy to lose the fighting edge."

Dates read: August 13-16, 2017

Rating: 4/10

The process for how textbooks get developed is fascinating. Especially for K-12 public school texts in the United States. The information contained in what's really just a handful of books makes up the knowledge base for what the majority of students end up learning. Large buyers can exert significant influence, given that companies want to market their products to as wide a base as possible. So you end up with books that shy away from controversy, meaning that when you learn about "Manifest Destiny", you read about it as triumphant white people making their way from sea to shining sea with just side notes about the devastating effects that the migration had on Native American communities. You have to actively seek out information that runs contrary to the official version.

Michael Lowenthal's Charity Girl explores one such "hidden" aspect of history. His novel follows Freida, a teenager who flees from her Russian Jewish immigrant mother after her father dies and she's about to be sold (literally) in marriage to a much older man she barely knows. She goes to Boston, where she gets a job in a department store and makes friends with her coworkers. She meets Felix, a dashing young soldier who sends her heart a-flutter...but leaves her with syphilis before he reports for training to head overseas to fight in World War I. She's tracked down by the Committee on Prevention of Social Evils Surrounding Military Camps, and even though she tries to get away, she's eventually picked up and sent to a reform facility.

She's committed no crime, but neither she or the other girls she's detained with (some prostitutes, some, like Freida, "charity girls" who don't sell their bodies but have offered their company to men who take them out) are sophisticated enough players to work the system. While there, the girls are treated for their STDs (this is the pre-antibiotic era, so those treatments are on the harsh side), as well as proselytized to about leaving behind their "scandalous" ways. There is a social worker who offers her help to Freida, and she never loses hope that Felix does care for her and will effectuate her release. She does eventually leave the home, but I'll leave the how for anyone who wants to read to discover.

Let's start with the good things about this book. First of all, it introduced me to a piece of American history I'd never heard of. That the military members who were as often as not the source of the diseases the girls had were able to get treatment and move on with their lives while the women were subjected to indefinite detention (sometimes followed by criminal prosecution), honestly, not all that surprising, unfortunately. But it was definitely something entirely new to me, and I'm glad I read it and found out more. I actually thought Lowenthal did a fairly good job with Freida's characterization (she's kind of wishy-washy and prone to flights of fantasy, but she's a 17 year-old girl who was sheltered for most of her life), and I appreciated that he surrounded her with a relatively diverse cast of characters.

But it wasn't really a very good book at the end of the day. Frieda might have been a well-drawn character, but as a protagonist, she was more irritating than not. The other girls she lived with might have been diverse, but they were all pretty flat. As soon as you find out than one of them is pregnant, it's obvious that there's going to be a botched abortion, because along with the helpful social worker turning out to be a predatory lesbian (yikes) who turns her back on Freida when she discovers that she's still infatuated with Felix, that's just the kind of story this is. I never really felt like the stakes were that high or got invested in the story. The writing is fine, but unspectacular. Unless you have a particular interest in this time period, I'd say that this is skippable.

Tell me, blog friends...what did you only learn about after high school history?

One year ago, I was reading: The Selfish Gene

Two years ago, I was reading: The Bear and the Nightingale

Three years ago, I was reading: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

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