Charity Girl

Charity Girl

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 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780618919789
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 01/08/2008
Pages: 338
Sales rank: 1,109,274
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.78(d)

About 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.”

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.

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Charity Girl 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 14 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.
BugsyBoog on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Historical fiction about a period of time that is not talked about or written about much¿During World War I, there was a movement by Christian groups to keep the soldiers healthy of body and mind. This involved getting the girls that the soldiers interacted with out of sight and mind. These groups, funded by the U.S. Government, gathered these girls (some prostitutes, some just regular girls), who had access to the soldiers or who were diagnosed with venereal diseases. They put them in homes, basically like prisons, to keep them away from the soldiers and ¿preying¿ on the innocence and good health of the soldiers. It did not matter if the soldier was your boyfriend, if you sold yourself to them, or even if you were raped, if you were caught, the government put the girls in these homes. The heroine in this story, Frieda Mintz, is a young Jewish girl who wanted to escape her oppressive mother and take a try at life as a working girl in a department store. She and her girlfriends frequent the dance halls and struggle to make ends meet in a difficult economic time. Frieda ends up being seduced by a young GI and comes down with a disease. She loses her job in the department store once her boss learns of the visit by one of the church ladies. She is eventually caught by the authorities after she tries to find her boyfriend, who seems genuinely enamored with her. There is more to his background, as he is also Jewish and heir to a great fortune. Frieda has to endure doctor exams, heartbreak, and others who try to take advantage of her while she is being held. This was an excellent story, making a historical time very real.
suesbooks on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The writing and topic both kept me interested, and I loved the ending--so realistic. I enjoyed learning the history and look forward to Lowenthal's next book. Unfortunately, even today, almost one hundred years later, many people are denied their legal rights for the good of the many. Lowenthal developed his characters so well that I could really feel for, and care about them.
CatieN on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Fact-based fiction set during World War I. Frieda Mintz is a 17-year-old Jewish girl who rebels against her mother and her religion and convention and runs away, gets a job at a department store, and learns the art of letting herself be picked up by men so they will take her dancing and buy her things. She falls hard for one particular soldier and "goes the limit," and he leaves her with a venereal disease and then reports her to the authorities as the last person he had sexual relations with. Frieda is then quarantined at a detention center with other women in the same situation. These women take all the blame while the soldiers get offscot-free. The main story is about the detained women and how they got there and how they survive or don't survive. Great story, good writing.
Gary10 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I give this author credit for bringing to light a dark part of American history. During World War I, the government rounded up thousands of women of "ill repute" to help stop the spread of veneral disease to soldiers. They did not follow any due process rules and there was great opportunity for injustice and maltreatment. However, exposing this wrongdoing isnt enough to sustain a work of fiction. The main character seemed two dimensional and I didnt pick up a good sense of how she had been transformed by her experiences. Still, the front half of the book is interesting--even if the second half is a bit of a letdown.
swanroad on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Tension-filled and brimming with period detail, this work about the WWI era US government plot to prevent the spread of venereal disease to soldiers by imprisoning women (in many cases detaining them in converted brothels) is one of the best novels I've read in years.The story is told from the point of view of naive Frieda Mintz, who grows up and perseveres even as she is branded as "...a far greater menace to the welfare of society than many murderers serving life sentences..."
goldiebear on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this book until about 10 pages before the ending. I kept wondering what was going to happen and how the ending was going to go down. The ending of this book is TERRIBLE! It like the author didn't know how to end it and just wrote the last 10 pages to tie thing up. Nothing happened. Plus it was so quick and depressing.Urgh. It was just a let down to an other wise interesting story.
ladybug74 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this book. It's hard to believe that women really were locked up during World War I to keep them from spreading venereal disease to the troops. It's even harder to believe that some were locked up just for dressing provocatively or doing other things that made people believe they "might" be a prostitute. This book was very interesting. I wasn't aware of this before now, so I was shocked that this type of thing actually happened in the past. This was a very good book until the end. It seemed like the ending was rushed and didn't flow well with the rest of the book.
rfewell on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A story of a young girl who, in an attempt to escape her controlling mother, ends up detained in a house for unsavory girls. This is based on actual events that occured during WWI, where the US government arrested girls found with or suspected of being with US soldiers. Some girls had STDs, some were pregnant, some were prostitutes, and some were just visiting their boyfriends before they shipped out for war. An OK coming of age story.
pdebolt on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Charity Girls rovides a powerful look inside this horrifying time when women were forcibly confined for having venereal diseases. Although fictionalized, the message was unrelenting in providing a view into what went on in these "internment camps." It is all too possible to see the politicians posturing, and people like Alice and the "guard" with their own hidden agendas. I had no idea that these places were prevalent during WWII in the U.S. It is disheartening to know that women of this socio-economic background were subjected to this humiliating and inhumane treatment.
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.