On the lawless streets of the 19th-century Lower East Side, a 12-year-old girl’s choices seem limited to servitude or prostitution.
McKay (The Birth House, 2006), who based this story in part on her family history, makes palpable the poverty and desperation that lead a gypsy fortuneteller to sell her daughter Moth as a maid to the abusive Mrs. Wentworth. Moth matter-of-factly accepts her fate, until Mrs. Wentworth’s ill-treatment moves from blows to attacks with scissors. The kindhearted butler, Nestor, instructs her to take two pieces from Mrs. Wentworth’s jewelry box: one for him, and one for Moth to sell to the fence whose address he provides. The money doesn’t last long, her mother has vanished, and with her face covered with bruises and her hair hacked off, Moth can’t get hired for even the lowest jobs. McKay supplements Moth’s first-person narrative with marginal notes and newspaper reports provided by a female doctor (in fact, the author’s great-great-grandmother) about everything from the plight of vagrant children to the “virgin cure,” a ghastly belief that having sex with a virgin will cure a man of venereal disease. With all this background, it’s entirely understandable that Moth walks into the brothel of Miss Everett with open eyes, knowing that she’ll be fed, clothed and displayed until one of the customers pays a premium to deflower her. There’s not much plot here, only Moth’s increasing doubts as the fates of her peers at Miss Everett’s reveal that a whore’s life is only slightly better than starving, while Dr. Sadie tries to persuade her that she has other options. Strongly delineated characters and a vivid historical backdrop make up for the lack of narrative energy in this reflective novel, which quietly conveys fierce indignation about the savagery with which the rich prey on the poor in a world ruled by money.
Very low-key, but rewarding for patient readers.