Saturday, February 21, 2009

Review: Charity Girl by Michael Lowenthal

Description from the Publisher: Charity Girl examines a dark period in our history, when fear and patriotic fervor led to devastating consequences. During World War I, the U.S. government waged a moral and medical campaign, incarcerating and quarantining 15,000 young women who were found to have venereal disease.

Frieda Mintz is a Jewish seventeen-year-old bundle wrapper at Jordan Marsh in Boston; she's struck out on her own in the wake of her mother's determination to marry her off to a wealthy man twice her age. Then, she spends one impulsive night with "a mensch, a U.S. Army private, ready to brave the trenches Over There." Unfortunately, Felix Morse leaves Frieda not just with vivid memories but with an unspeakable disease. Soon after, she is tracked down and sent to a makeshift detention center, where she suffers invasive physical exams, the discipline of an overbearing matron, and a painful erosion of self-worth. She's buoyed, though, by the strong women around her—her fellow patients and a sympathetic social worker—who, in depending on one another, seek to forge a new independence.

In smart, unusually determined Frieda Mintz, Michael Lowenthal has deftly created a most winning heroine through which to tell this troubling tale. Charity Girl lays bare an ugly part of our past, when the government exercised a questionable level of authority at the expense of some of its most vulnerable citizens; it also casts long shadows, exploring timely questions of desire, identity, and the balance between the public good and individual freedom.

Charity Girl is set during World War I, and tells the story of Frieda Mintz, a young Jewish teenage girl who struggles with a cold and distant mother but has a wonderful and loving father. Unfortunately, things change within the family and Frieda is left alone to be raised by her mother who Frieda feels little connection to. Her mother is left to find a way to support them and takes in sewing jobs but this is not enough to cover their debts. She is approached by an older man who wants to marry Frieda and who is twice her age. Frieda is repulsed by this man and seeks to find a way to get out of this arrangement her mother has agreed to. She is able to find a job and develops a close relationship with Lou a girl she works with, who teaches Frieda how to manage her money and survive. Lou also shows Frieda how to have some fun and takes her to dances where they learn just what some men are looking for. Frieda meets a man named Felix, a private in the army and they have one evening of passion and meaningful memories. Unfortunately, Felix passed on a terrible disease that will change the course of both of their lives. Frieda is young and naive and makes choices that put her in a situation that allows her to be easily tracked down and sent away to one of the detention centers. There she befriends many of the other patients and a social worker who takes interest in her case. She learns powerful lessons about love, loss, forgiveness, independence and strength of spirit.

In all honesty, I did not know about this historical time in our country where thousands of women were held in reformatories and detention homes, behind barbed wire, for months at a time. It is reported that the U. S. Government detained close to 30,000 women. There were no charges of a crime, no trial, and they were forced to endure medical treatment for venereal diseases. Many of the women were prostitutes, but a significant number of the women were not. They were called "charity girls". Hence the title of the book, the author describes "charity girls" as " those who "picked up" men for the sheer fun of it and for the attendant perks of nights on the town—and who by our contemporary standards, were doing nothing illicit or even unusual. " Frieda was considered a "charity girl". These events are truly shocking and mind boggling to realize that they actually occurred. Also, it has been reported that these actions did not cause a decline in the military's infection rate.

I was angry that the men were not held accountable for their own actions in spreading venereal disease in the story and during the real events of World War I. The women were blamed for "infecting" the men when often it was the other way around, especially for the "charity girls". Due to the men being needed to serve in the war, they were not detained in detention centers or reformatories while they were being treated.

I found this novel, engrossing and it grabbed my attention from the start. I read it in 2 days as I couldn't put it down. In reading the story, I could envision this historical time period with the wonderful details and descriptions that the author shared through his writing. I wanted to know what happened to Frieda. I was hoping for more in the end but in a sense the choices that Frieda makes are relative of that time period. Frieda may not have had many options after her experiences in the detention camp. I was hoping for Frieda to find that "true love" and passion that she deserved. I guess that I wanted Frieda to have a happily ever after story but that is not reality. I did like how in the end Frieda found her strength and intelligence as a women. I was very impressed that Michael Lowenthal, a male author, could capture so accurately the female characters perspectives and feelings.

(This is a World War 1 Era Health Poster)

From Michael Lowenthal's Website he shares that "The American Social Hygiene Association archive at the University of Minnesota library has made available eleven anti-vice campaign posters from the First World War. The images can be viewed online. (In the "search" box, type "Army Educational Commission.") "

Please make sure to check out Michael Lowenthal's website for much more information about the writing and research of Charity Girl.


  1. I'd never heard of the charity girls either. Sounds fascinating. Thanks for the review.

  2. This sounds so intriguing. It's nothing I've ever heard about before. This is most definitely going on my list of books to find. Thanks so much for the wonderful review.

  3. Wow - does this sound interesting. I had no clue about this era of "charity girls". Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

  4. I've never heard of this either but this definitely sounds like a novel worth reading. Thanks for bringing it to my attention and the great review.

  5. I didn't know that this happened either. This one sounds like it would be informative about the time period, and I like books where I feel like I'm learning something. I'm sure it is also a story that would make me angry though.

  6. I am afraid all countries had schemes like this at that time. In Denmark ´lose girls´ were certainly kept away from proper people e.g. in instutions on tiny islands, in some cases as late as the 1950s I believe.

  7. The double standard infuriates me too. I also was totally clueless about this shameful chapter in our history. Thanks for the information and the review.

  8. Excellent review Bonnie and a topic that I have NEVER heard of. Can you believe all of the things that happened in the U.S. but no one knew they went on? Loved your views especially concerning the men..why weren't they treated as lepers? Can't wait to read this book!!

  9. Thanks to everyone for the comments. It's amazing that none of us have heard of this before.
    I am appalled at the double standard and how men were treated as victims but not the women.

    Dorte-You bring up a good point that similar things occur in different countries. It makes me think of another favorite book of mine "The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox" by Maggie O'Farrell which brings to light the issue of institutionalizing women for similar reasons in the UK.

  10. I remember reading about the "charity girls" in a class years ago, but I didn't retain a lot about the period.

    Very interesting that Lowenthal has incorporated it into a novel. And I agree that it's a talent for a male author to take on a woman's personality (I'm thinking of *Memoirs of a Geisha* which was incredible!)


Thanks for visiting and sharing a comment!