Moth is 12 years old and living in the slums of Chrystie Street in Lower Manhattan, daughter of a fortune telling mother and a long disappeared father. She and her mother are barely scraping by, her mother resorting to sex with the landlord when she is too far behind on her rent. Moth knows that she has a limited amount of time left with her mother and she dreams of escaping her hard life, fantasizing about a large house behind an iron fence on her daily route. But before she is ready to strike out on her own, her mother wakes her in the middle of the night and bundles her belongings together so she can leave, having sold Moth into servitude to a wealthy woman as a personal lady's maid. But her life with Mrs. Wentworth is terrible, the lady being cruel and unbalanced. And so Moth, with the help of the household's larcenous butler, conspires to escape, stealing some of Mrs. Wentworth's jewelry, and going back to Chrystie Street only to find that her mother is no longer there.
Moth ends up on the street begging to survive before she is finally taken in by a young prostitute in training who takes her to Miss Everett's "Infant School," a brothel that grooms its girls into faux ladies before offering their virginity to the highest bidder and then courts the wealthiest clientele for the deflowered. As appalling as the situation appears, prostitution at Miss Everett's is a far kinder proposition than living on the street with the all the risks there and the potential for being used in the popular remedy of a "virgin cure," where syphilitic men believed that sex with a virgin would cure them of this terrible disease, but which in actuality condemned young girls to their own slow death. Miss Everett not only didn't allow for this in her house, but she also employed a doctor, Dr. Sadie, to care for her girls. When Dr. Sadie and Moth meet on Moth's first day in the "school," Dr. Sadie decides to try and rescue Moth from a life of prostitution, recognizing in this young girl an intelligence, survival instinct, and spark of life that she wants to preserve.
Narrated by Moth with only occasional interjections by Dr. Sadie, newspaper clippings, and snippets from popular songs, poems, and other writings of the time, McKay has captures the gritty desperation of the times realistically through a child's eyes. Her Moth is both an innocent and preternaturally mature, understanding some of the harsher realities of life even as she is surprised by others. The inter-textual comments, set off in the margins, sometimes further the story and other times just add more elaborate detail and flavor than Moth could possibly know about fabric, medicines, and other popular items of the times. They can be a tad distracting until the reader gets used to their appearance. The historical era is beautifully evoked, very immediate, and obviously well-researched. Moth is an engaging character and although some of her decisions seem incomprehensible to us in this day and age, they are very in character for her and era appropriate. Dr. Sadie remains a bit of a shadowy character despite tidbits about her privileged past and her being ostracized from her family because of her decision to pursue schooling, medicine, and a career being carefully dropped into the narrative at distant intervals. She is far less fleshed out as a character than Moth is even though her life choice is at least as fascinating as Moth's tale. Fans of historical fiction who have an interest in women's issues will appreciate the vivid and realistic depiction of the time and the place and will find Moth's eventual path curious, unusual, and ultimately gratifying.
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Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.