I’m not that familiar with Boston’s history, aside from snippets of trivia I’ve squirreled away regarding the city’s role during the Revolutionary War. Michael Lowenthal’s novel Charity Girl is fascinating for its level of knowledge alone — everything else is just an extra treat, like unexpectedly getting sprinkles on an ice cream cone. Though in Boston, apparently, they’re called jimmies.
Charity Girl follows Frieda Mintz, a seventeen-year-old shopgirl at the now-obsolete Jordan Marsh, during a time when everything around her is in a state of utmost frenzy: the United States has been fighting in World War I for a year, Babe Ruth is leading the Red Sox to victory, and Frieda has just moved out of her mother’s oppressively traditional household. Living on less than ten dollars a week, Frieda makes three gumdrops take the place of a proper lunch and allows strangers at the local dance halls to buy her drinks.
Don’t be misled — Frieda is nothing but a good girl, one looking to find love and her place in the world. Like most of us, she makes a few wrong turns along the way and deals with the consequences as best she knows how. The admirable thing is that she never once loses hope. After being wooed and seduced by a young soldier, Frieda still holds on to the idea of love… even when he sends a letter flippantly informing her that he’s learned he has syphilis — a topic briefly addressed, with more references to his song-writing skills, war and the Sox.
Frieda then gets swept into a little bit of American history that I never even knew took place: the incarceration of wanton women. Approximately 15,000 women were held against their will for the charge of spreading sexually transmitted diseases to the American armed forces. Some of these women were prostitutes, some of them were unfortunate cases, and even more were, like Frieda, charity girls — girls who spent time with men out of either pity or fun.
Lowenthal’s writing is fascinating, and would be even if his topic were something as mundane as growing potatoes. By combining words, by choosing the right words, in the most readable and elegant way, he lets Frieda be so utterly real — hopeful, tragic and lovely — that even when her situation seems almost unbearably lost, the reader can’t help but share her optimism.