Charity Girl by Michael Lowenthal | Paperback | Barnes & Noble
Charity Girl
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Charity Girl

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by Michael Lowenthal

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During World War I, seventeen-year-old Frieda Mintz secures a job at a Boston department store and strikes out on her own, escaping her repressive Jewish mother and marriage to a wealthy widower twice her age. Determined to find love on her own terms, she is intoxicated by her newfound freedom and the patriotic fervor of the day. That is, until a soldier reports


During World War I, seventeen-year-old Frieda Mintz secures a job at a Boston department store and strikes out on her own, escaping her repressive Jewish mother and marriage to a wealthy widower twice her age. Determined to find love on her own terms, she is intoxicated by her newfound freedom and the patriotic fervor of the day. That is, until a soldier reports her as his last sexual contact, sweeping her up in the government’s wartime crusade against venereal disease. Quarantined in a detention center, Frieda finds in the Home’s confines a group of brash, unforgettable women who help her see the way to a new kind of independence.

Charity Girl is based on a little-known chapter in American history that saw fifteen thousand women across the nation incarcerated. Like When the Emperor Was Divine, Lowenthal’s poignant, provocative novel will leave readers moved - and astonished by the shameful facts that inspired it.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Lively and illuminating . . . marr[ies] the facts of history with the details that make a fictional life come alive.”—Anita Shreve The Washington Post

“Even while capturing the great sweep of the period, Charity Girl celebrates most the depth of the characters’ lives.”—Matthew Pearl

William Gaffney
Lowenthal’s narrative style is perfect for a heroine who suffers but remains a survivor, striking just the right mix of dark and light, worldly and innocent. Providing Frieda with flickers of humor and joy, he guarantees her our sympathy.
— The New York Times
Anita Shreve
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.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Focusing on a little-known WWI-era government campaign to imprison women who'd contracted "social diseases," Lowenthal (The Same Embrace; Avoidance) follows the travails of a 17-year-old Boston girl as she's put through the system's wringer. Frieda Mintz is a bundle wrapper at a department store living on her own when she meets Felix Morse, an army private. After a date at a Red Sox game, they sleep together. Not long after, Mrs. Sprague from the "Committee on Prevention of Social Evils Surrounding Military Camps," hounds Frieda at her workplace because Felix, during an inspection that uncovers he has an infection, names Frieda as his "last contact." After her case of "the whites" flares up and she loses her job, Frieda follows Felix to Camp Devens, where she's arrested and put into quarantine. Behind bars, she befriends Flossie Collins, and the two are sent to a detention camp, where they undergo crude medical treatment and perform mandatory manual labor alongside a host of other quarantined women. As her body heals and conditions worsen at the detention center, tensions rise to a wrenching climax. Lowenthal ably captures the transformation of a na ve adolescent into a woman in his provocative story. (Jan.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
KLIATT - Nola Theiss
Frieda Mintz is a young teenage girl looking for a way to grow up and away from her strict mother, especially after her butcher father dies from a knife cut her mother blames Frieda for. She gets a job at a nice department store and starts to go with older girls to dances where she meets soldiers on their way to combat in WW I. Her mother tries to marry her off to an older widower with children, and when Frieda meets a young soldier, she sees him both as a love and an escape. Unfortunately, he infects her with a venereal disease and reports her as his last conquest. This leads to her to be quarantined in a government detention center until she has recovered, along with many other girls. This was the fate of 15,000 girls during this time period who were punished for their boyfriends' indiscretions. Frieda uses this time to grow up, learn from the other girls and discover the true nature of her wealthy boyfriend and his family. Not only is this a well-written coming-of-age story, it also explores an interesting time in our history and its attitudes about the status of women and the vast differences between the poor and the wealthy. Reviewer: Nola Theiss
Library Journal
In his third novel (after Avoidanceand The Same Embrace), Lowenthal creates a captivating fictional account of the U.S. government's forced quarantine of thousands of young women who were found near military bases and suspected of having venereal disease during World War I. Seventeen-year-old Frieda Mintz, who has fled her family's home, works as a shop girl by day and often dances in the Boston ballrooms at night. It is when Frieda meets and spends the night with a young soldier, Felix Morse, with whom she becomes smitten, that the trouble begins. While trying to visit him at his military camp, Frieda is picked up and sent to a detention home, where she tests positive for VD. Quarantined and placed under treatment, Frieda hopes Felix will come to her aid. Her growing compassion and gradual awakening in the midst of a situation where humiliation and shame conspire to degrade these young women forms the core of this story. Several of the novel's other characters are equally memorable, and Lowenthal writes in a tempo that keeps this a spirited and exciting story. Recommended for all public libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ9/15/06.]
—Maureen Neville
Kirkus Reviews
Harrowing yet inspiring, this historical novel explores a shameful secret-the internment, during World War I, of 30,000 American women suspected of having venereal diseases. Hardworking 18-year-old Frieda Mintz keeps an eye out for fun-she's mad about Hazards of Helen flicks at the Bijou Dream, the latest dance craze (the Chaplin wiggle) and boys. With so winning a heroine, Lowenthal (Avoidance, 2002) deftly personalizes a tragic story. Earning eight dollars a week working the Ladies Undergarment counter at Boston's Jordan Marsh department store, Frieda has fled a fearsome future: marriage, arranged by her punitively kosher mother, to Pinchas Hersch, twice her age and his ears sprouting "curling gray hairs." Hardly reckless enough to qualify as a flapper or true jazz baby, she's a "charity girl" of a pack known for haunting dance halls and allowing mildly creepy beaux to pay for their drinks or trinkets. One night, though-bliss! Frieda is swept up by Felix Morse, "a mensch, a U.S. Army private, ready to brave the trenches Over There." Turns out he's not only a hunk but an heir, scion of one of Boston's big-shot politicos. After a magic night in the Morse mansion, however, he leaves Frieda with more than memories-a serious STD. Enter the villainous Mrs. Sprague, of the Committee on Prevention of Social Evils Surrounding Military Camps. Pulling government strings and manufacturing a charge of prostitution, Sprague has Frieda committed to a detention camp in rural Fitchburg. There, alongside plucky hooker Flossie and budding anarchist Yetta, Frieda pitches into Dickensian darkness-rape and then bone-wearying labor. Her eventual deliverance testifies both to her own courage and America'stardy realization that the save-soldiers-from-fallen-women enterprise was basic criminality. Rich in period detail, swift-paced prose and deserved political outrage. Agent: Mitchell Waters/Curtis Brown Ltd.

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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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Read an Excerpt

Someone has come for her—someone is here!—and gossip speeds so readily through Ladies’ Undergarments that Frieda, in a twinkling, is forewarned. (The elevator boy tells the stock girl, who tells her.) She grins, but as the newest- hired wrapper at Jordan Marsh she’s still minded awfully closely by Mr. Crowley, so she struggles against the glee and keeps to work. She snaps a box open and handily tucks its ends, crimps tissue around the latest stranger’s buys: a nainsook chemise, a crepe de Chine camisole. But her fingers, as she’s knotting up the package, snarl the string.
She’s been waiting for him to come again, conjuring. Every day this week, she’s woken half an hour early to wash her hair and put herself together. On the modest black shirtwaist required by Jordan’s dress code gleams her only brooch: Papa’s gold seashell. She’s nibbled at tablets of arsenic to pale her face, rubbed lemon zest on her wrists and her throat: the pinpoints where her flurried pulse beats. A girl who can’t afford to buy perfume finds other lures.
Now, at last, Felix has come, as he promised. She fills her mouth with the hum of his name: Feel-ix. The feel of his thumbs on her hipbones, hooked hard. The taste of his taut, brazen lips.
He’s come for her at work again, for where else could he search? Their first—their only—time, they didn’t use her room (the landlady would have kicked her out, and quick). Instead they went where he wanted, and afterward, in her fluster (her brain swirly with passion, with a fib she’d caught him telling), she neglected to give him her address. Her rooming house has no telephone.
Lou, who was with Frieda when Felix swept her off, predicted he would soon enough be back. Lou didn’t speak to him but says she didn’t have to; she knows from boys, knows all she needs. Frieda scans the department for her surefire companion, hoping to score a last bit of advice. But Lou is nowhere to be seen. She must be in the fitting room with a customer.
It hits Frieda that Minnie, the stock girl, said someone. Why not say a man? Or speak in code? The shopgirls have their secret tricks of talk. “Oh, Henrietta!” one will call, although no clerk goes by that name, meaning: That customer’s a hen, not worth the bother. And if a cash girl whispers, “Could you hand me some of that?” she means, Don’t look yet, but is he handsome!
Minnie didn’t ask to be handed anything; all she said was “Someone’s here for you.” For an instant Frieda fears that the visitor is Mama; Mama’s tracked her down and come to fume. Frieda is still six months shy of eighteen, so Mama retains parental rights. She could have Frieda booked on a charge of stubbornness. She could force her to go live with awful Hirsch.
Silly, no, the explanation’s simpler: Minnie’s just too new to know the code. She’s worked at Jordan’s less than two full weeks.
Frieda had her own missed-signal mishap, her very first Friday at the store. She was struggling after lunch to keep pace at the wrapping counter when Lou, her new pal, hastened by, tapping her wrist twice for the time. Strange—that very wrist was adorned with an Elgin watch—but Frieda’s mind was cottony with fatigue; she said, “Ten past two,” and went back to her bundles.
Seconds later, she heard, “Excuse me,” and looked up. The man was gray-templed, enticingly tall, a crisp-rimmed homburg in his hands.
“Yes,” he said. “Hello. What I need are undergarments. Corsets, brassieres, camisoles.” “I’m sorry, sir,” said Frieda. “I’m just a bundle wrapper. You’d have to find a salesclerk for that. Try Miss Garneau”—that was Lou—“or Miss Fitzroy.” “No, no,” he said. His gaze skittered oddly across her features, as though following the flight of a bug he hoped to swat.
“You can help me, miss. I’m sure you can.” “I’m sorry,” she repeated, nervous not only that her incompetence would be spotted (what did she know of boning or figured broché?) but that the clerks would be mad at her for meddling.
“But you see,” said the man, leaning over the counter so that Frieda smelled his oversweet breath, “I’m aiming to surprise a lady friend. Naturally, I wasn’t able to ask her size. But you look just about her dimensions. The salesclerk, if I may say, is a bit too saggy in the bosom.” He stretched saggy to sound exactly like its meaning, and Frieda couldn’t stifle a rising laugh.
“Would you mind terribly telling me your size?” he said. “I lack any experience in these matters.” His voice was cultured, Frieda thought, the kind of voice that could get away with talking French—words like amour and sonata (or was that Spanish?). He had a moth-eaten attractiveness, his features clearly hand-me- downs from a previous, more vital self. His eyees were the color of tarnished pennies.
“Eaton,” he said. “George Eaton. Would you help me?” The first and last rule in the Jordan Marsh manualllll: The customer must always be served. Frieda told the man her measurements.
Soon enough she found herself wrapping a large package of their priciest hand-embroidered undergarments: fine albatross, in slow-burn shades of rose. Grace Fitzroy, who’d booked the sale, took the finished bundle and gave it, Frieda saw, to Eaton.
But instead of heading left, toward the bank of elevators, he turned right and sauntered straight to Frieda. Atop the package sat his careful note: “For you, with the hope that I might see how they become you. Meet me out front. Six o’clock.” As soon as he was gone, Lou came rushing. “You batty, Frieda? Why’d you talk to him?” “He’s a customer. He asked for my advice.” “Not him, though. He’s notorious! Why didn’t you mind my signal?” When Frieda professed ignorance, Lou had to explain that two taps of the timepiece meant Watch out. The store teemed with disreputable men. “Next time,” she admonished, “tell him off.” Frieda couldn’t fathom why the gifts should be returned—hadn’t Eaton paid for them in cash?—but Lou and Grace said she had to do it. (Grace crossed herself: “There but for God.”) Obediently Frieda gave them up, but kept as her secret where she planned to go at closing time. She exited as usual by the employees’ alley door, then crept round, keeping in the shadows. George Eaton was waiting by the main glass-door entrance, whistling a nonchalant song. Whistling and waiting, just for her.
Frieda stood trembling—ten minutes, fifteen—studying this man who wanted her. Eaton placidly tipped his hat to passersby, now and again checked his pocket watch. She couldn’t quite judge if he was dashing or disturbing—or if maybe there wasn’t all that big a difference. How would it feel to ask so boldly for what you wanted?
She took two jittery steps in his direction, then scuttled back to shadowed safety. Her tongue turned edgy, sharp within her mouth. And her heart, by the time Eaton shrugged and loped away, thumped so hard she feared it might bruise.
Which is how she feels now, minus the doubt: Felix is no lewd lurker preying on the guileless; he’s a mensch, a U.S. Army private, ready to brave the trenches Over There. (His uniform! Its manful, raspy feel.) Sure, maybe she’s loony—they’ve kept company but the once, which ended with Frieda running off—but something tells her he might be a keeper. She knows it by the fierce, delicious tension in her joints. Her whole self is a knuckle that needs cracking.
From the skein, she snips off a prickly length of twine. She’ll count to ten—no, twenty—then allow a quick peek up. By then, she thinks, he’ll be right here. Here.
She’s at twelve—doubting she can last eight further counts—when a lady’s treacly voice says, “Frieda Mintz?” Instinct almost makes Frieda deny it. She hates to hear her name asked as a question. In a tiny, grudging tone she says, “I’m her.” “Good, then. Wonderful. How easy.” Get on with it, Frieda wants to say.
Get on with it and get the heck away from my counter so I can be alone when Felix shows.
The lady has a damsel’s braids the color of a dusty blackboard, as though her schoolgirl self was aged abruptly. Her smile shows a neat set of teeth. “I’m sorry to have come to your workplace,” she says, “but it’s all the information we were given. Is there somewhere we can speak more privately?” Only now does Frieda see that Felix isn’t coming, that her visitor is—who? How does this stranger know her name? The pressure in her joints pinches tight. “No,” she says. “I’ve got to stay. I’m working.” “But I really must speak with you, Miss Mintz.” “I had my break already,” Frieda says.
“Then I guess we’ll just have to talk here.” The woman shivers slightly, hunch-shouldered and indignant, like someone caught suddenly in the rain. “I’m Mrs. Sprague. I’m with the Committee on Prevention of Social Evils Surrounding Military Camps.” The long, daunting name is a gale that buffets Frieda, dizzying, disorienting. Evils.
“You’re familiar with our work?” Frieda manages to mumble no.
“Well, we’re trying to do our bit to win the war. For those of us who can’t actually enlist ourselves and fight, that means supporting our boys in every way—isn’t that right?” Mrs. Sprague’s churchy tone reminds Frieda of the man who came into Jordan’s last Thursday to train a squad of four-minute speakers. (As if Boston needs another squad! At every movie hall and subway stop she’s heard them, preaching in the same zealous accent.) When Frieda walked past the employees’ room at lunch, she heard the speech coach’s red-blooded baritone (“Whenever possible, address crowds in the first-person plural. It makes them feel invested, don’t we think?”) and the class’s steel- trap response (“We do!”).
“I said, isn’t that right, Miss Mintz?” Frieda stares at her twine-roughened fingers. “Suppose so.” “You ‘suppose.’ But do you really understand?” The lady’s smile widens, showing more tidy teeth. “Too many girls—too many pretty ones like you—get their desire to help soldiers all mixed up with . . . well, with desire itself.” How does she know of Frieda’s longing for a soldier? Did she spy her with Felix at the ballgame? (The game was the only public place they went.) “And here’s something I bet you haven’t heard,” says Mrs. Sprague. “Have you heard that more soldiers are hospitalized now with social diseases than with battle wounds?” Frieda, in confusion, shakes her head. How could a disease be something social?
“Most girls don’t know that. Most don’t want to. And if a soldier’s hurt when he goes over the top, that’s the price of freedom, and we’ll pay it. But any man hit by this other kind of sickness—well, he’s crippled in his body and his soul.” The last word seems to trigger something in the woman; she takes one of her gray braids and twists it round her thumb, as if remembering long-ago pain. “A bullet wound can heal. Not a soul.” Frieda glimpses Mr. Crowley standing ten yards off, with the floorwalker from the Notions department. Can he hear? Does he see that she’s not wrapping? Twice last week he scolded her for minuscule infractions (sitting before her break, excessive laughter). What would he inflict for this transgression? “You’re scaring me,” she says to the strange woman. “Would you please leave?” She grabs a slip of tissue to stuff within a frock, but her fingers only fold the flimsy paper.
“No,” says Mrs. Sprague. “No, I can’t. It seems that your name and address—well, the fact that you work here—were given by a soldier to the Camp Devens guard—and then to our Committee on Prevention—when the soldier was found to be infected.” “Infected?” Mrs. Sprague colors and looks down, away from Frieda.
She plucks a mote of cotton from her sleeve. “You might have heard the layman’s terms. The pox. The clap.” Despite her lowered voice, the consonants resound; the smack of them seems to make her wince. “The soldier has reported that you were his last contact. We have to assume you were the source.” But Frieda thought you had to “go the limit” to risk sickness—and she hasn’t, not with anyone but Felix. (Well, and Jack Galassi, but that was long ago.) “Felix?” she says. “I don’t . . . I can’t believe it.” “I’m not at liberty to disclose the soldier’s name.” Lou arrives with two piqué petticoats to be wrapped, and piles them onto Frieda’s growing backlog. She taps Frieda’s right shoulder: You all right?
Frieda nods, but the movement nauseates her. In the teeter of her panic she tries to summon Felix’s face; haziness is all that she can muster. His smell, though, storms upon her—pistachios, spilled spirits—and the agitated rapture of his kisses.
“Okay?” Lou says, this time aloud.
Before Frieda can answer, Mr. Crowley sees them huddled and he scowls; Lou returns to her customers.
“You’re lucky,” explains Mrs. Sprague. “Because you met this soldier outside of the moral zone, we don’t have authority to arrest you. And we can’t force a medical exam.” She peers at Frieda as if judging the future of a stained dress. Is it salvageable as rags, or just trash? “But here’s warning: if you’re found anywhere within five miles of Camp Devens—or any installation for that matter—believe me, you’ll be head and ears in trouble. Stay away from the town of Ayer. Hear?” As if ducking a blow, Frieda nods.
“Our hope,” Mrs. Sprague continues, her tone a bit tempered, “is that you’ll volunteer for medical care—and help us all by helping your own health. It’s not too late to turn away from ruin.” But Frieda can taste the ruin already, a spoiled-milk acridness near her tonsils. She feels sweat—or something worse?—beneath her skirts.
Mrs. Sprague finds a pad and pencil in her purse. “Do you live at home? We’d like to reach your parents.” “They’re dead,” Frieda mutters. (Papa is; Mama might as well be.) “You’re adrift.” The woman marks something in her book. “Then tell me where you yourself live.” “Harrison,” comes out automatically, but she’s quick enough to falsify the number. “Seventy-two,” she says—Mama’s Chambers Street address.
“Telephone?” Frieda shakes her head.
Mrs. Sprague makes another note and tucks her pad away, looking saddened by the thought of such privation. One after the other she lifts her gray braids, which have fallen in front of her hunched shoulders, and places them back behind her neck.
The gesture’s exactness reminds Frieda of Jenny Cohn, the best- off girl in first grade; every day, Jenny brought her doll to school and shared it, encouraging Frieda to pretend, but all the while would stand there watching every move, ready to snatch the doll away if Frieda played wrong.
“I know life is hard,” says Mrs. Sprague, “for a girl like you. But believe me, it could get a great deal worse. I visit the girls we catch—we have a brig in the Ayer Town Hall—and I’ll tell you, they don’t look very well. Once they’ve really come a cropper, they’re begging for their old problems.” “Excuse me, ma’am,” says Mr. Crowley, fast upon them. Spittle wets his mustache at its twists. “Miss Mintz here has some purchases to wrap. If you need assistance, can one of the salesladies help you?” “No,” she says. “My business here is done.” Then to Frieda: “We do this because we care—remember that. I’ll hope to see you soon. It’s not too late.” She turns toward the elevators and disappears.
Frieda doesn’t look at her, and not at Mr. Crowley, but at the mound of unmentionables on the counter. She folds two chiffon negligees—slippery, obscene—and boxes them as fast as she can manage, cutting string, tying stony knots.

Copyright © 2007 by Michael Lowenthal. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

Meet the Author

MICHAEL LOWENTHAL is the author of the acclaimed novels Charity Girl, Avoidance, and The Same Embrace. He has written for the New York Times Magazine, the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post Book World, the Boston Globe, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and many other publications. He teaches writing at Boston College and Lesely University. Charity Girl was inspired by a line in Susan Sontag’s AIDS and Its Metaphors, in which she likens the incarceration of American women during World War I to the internment of Americans of Japanese ancestry during World War II. Lowenthal says, “The latter historical episode I had, of course, heard about, but not the first . . . I immediately had two thoughts: (1) how awful, and (2) what a great basis for a novel.”

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Charity Girl 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
So I have this horrible habit of buying loads of books whenever I enter a bookstore. Unfortunately, being a busy High School Senior, I rarely get a chance to actually read what I want. So. Spring Break's come around and I picked this book as my first to make a dent into my backlog of books. I was so pleased with the book. The story was captivating 'I was able to get through it. If a story doesn't get me at the beginning, I put it down and go for a different book. Save the boring one for later.' I really couldn't put it down. Although some parts I was able to see coming 'and that was a bit disappointing. Hence the 4, rather than a 5.' twists in the relationships with the characters kept me interested. It kept me rooting for Frieda, every step of the way.
LadyLucyLehn More than 1 year ago
I found this story line to be very interesting. I'll admit that the historical significance behind this story was one I was unaware of. I love historical fiction and stepping back in time, and learning, while enjoying a great book. I thought this book well written, but it wasn't the best I've read. I wasn't "hooked" like I usually experience with a great book. I felt that the story left something to be desired. I kept waiting for something to happen, but was left unsatisfied at the end. I would still recommend this read for the histrical education aspect.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is very well written and a very interesting story. I enjoyed reading Frieda's story and felt as if I learned something too.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very touching story. The betrayal of this young woman on so many levels is heartbreaking.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Ok. Bye.