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’s tardy realization that the save-soldiers-from-fallen-women enterprise was basic criminality.
Rich in period detail, swift-paced prose and deserved political outrage.