CHARITY GIRL by Michael Lowenthal

CharityI’ve come across a few recent reviews of a book called Charity Girl by Michael Lowenthal. It’s a novel about American women who were rounded up during World War I and detained on suspicion that they were spreading venereal disease among American soldiers. Some were prosititutes, but others were “so-called charity girls, young women who picked up men at dance halls simply to have a good time,” according to The Washington Post‘s review of the book. These women were sent to camps across the country, where they were “subjected to hard labor, forced medical treatment, unspeakable humiliations and even rape.”  Charity Girl imagines this ordeal through the eyes of a 17-year old girl in Boston who falls in love with a young soldier who later tests positive for syphilis.

I didn’t know anything about this dark chapter of American history before reading these reviews.

From The San Francisco Chronicle:   

Readers may be shocked to learn that simplistic visions of right conduct, end-justifies-the-means rationalizations and a government bent on inculcating citizens with its vision as widely as possible colluded to imprison 30,000 women in barbed-wire camps on dubious grounds during World War I as threats to public hygiene. Building on historians’ accounts of this moral-purity crusade, Michael Lowenthal imagines one woman’s story. More than that, he ponders the human and political havoc such policies wreak.

The New York Times (subscription required) writes, “As a work of literature, Charity Girl is in the vein of late-19th- and early-20th-century novels like Sister Carrie, which depicted the perils of big cities for young women. Department stores, especially, were places of temptation where unsupervised women came into contact with strange men and were exposed to the temptations of worldly goods.”

Most of the reviews I have read of this book focus almost exclusively on the historical context of the novel and the plot, rather than on the writing itself.  Anita Shreve (who wrote the Washington Post review) simply concludes, “That few readers of Lowenthal’s deserving novel will ever have heard of the detention of the ‘charity girls’ is astonishing. That Lowenthal has made us aware of them is nothing short of a gift.”

Here is a favorable review from The Boston Globe, which states that Charity Girl “tells a deeply disturbing story with compassion and sly cleverness.”

I definitely don’t read enough historical fiction — though I do enjoy it — this may be a good one to add to the list.

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