Charity Girl by Michael Lowenthal is the perfect sort of historical fiction that not just transports you to another era but is also informative. The author uncovers a little known fact of American history and takes off to create a story that is engaging and sure to leave you feeling outraged.
Frieda Mintz is a young woman living in Boston with her very strict immigrant parents. From the onset there is a lot of tension between Frieda and her mother and when her father dies, Frieda is being pushed into a marriage with an older widower but that’s not the life she envisions for herself and so she escapes.
She moves to a boarding house and is determined to find love and freedom on her terms. She works for a department store gift wrapping lingerie and her daily life is filled with flirtations with the men who come to the shop, going to dances and coveting simple pleasures. An extra piece of candy, a new hat, the small luxurious that any young woman wishes for and sometimes men offer these up for an extra dance, a kiss or something more.
When a woman from the health department visits Frieda at her job and tells her she needs to report because she’s being accused of having infected a serviceman with venereal disease, Frieda denies any wrongdoing and knows her boyfriend will stand up for her but as she’s already been signaled out the store manager fires her and without any means or references Frieda is struggling to make ends meet.
Frieda tries to contact her boyfriend but her attempts are thwarted and before she knows it, she is imprisoned. She finds herself in the camp with dozens of other women. All they know is that they’ve been accused of infecting soldiers and without any trial they are told they will just have to wait to receive treatment before they can be let out into society again.
Aside from the fact that these girls were imprisoned and were practically kept in the dark about their sentences and their treatment it is the fact that they were the ones to pay for the spread of the disease that is almost unbelievable. Frieda may not have made good choices along the way and her naivete is sometimes a bit hard to read about but I kept reminding myself that this was a different time, she was still quite young and she was all alone. What could a woman in her position do to save herself? No matter her poor choices she didn’t deserve to be treated the way she was and neither were the other women who were imprisoned.
According to notes at the end of the book, some 15,000 women were incarcerated at the time. Are you outraged yet? This would be a fabulous book for a group discussion. As it is one that certainly deals with women’s issues, I’m going to count this as a read for the Women Unbound reading challenge.
Source: Personal copy