HISTORICAL FICTION WORLD WAR I
By Michael Lowenthal
Houghton Mifflin. 323 pp. $24
During World War I, 30,000 American women were rounded up, and half of them were detained, often for months, for the supposed purpose of preventing the spread of venereal diseases in soldiers. Some of the arrested were prostitutes, while others were so-called charity girls, young women who picked up men at dance halls simply to have a good time. That the incarceration of these women at detention camps surrounded by barbed wire did nothing to change the rate at which soldiers were contracting STDs was a piece of information that the Committee on the Prevention of Social Evils Surrounding Military Camps was not much interested in during the late summer of 1918. Nor did the committee seem to care that it was often the men who had infected the women.
The unfortunate female detainees at 43 sites around the country were subjected to hard labor, forced medical treatment, unspeakable humiliations and even rape. Their ordeal provides the inspiration for Michael Lowenthal's lively and illuminating novel Charity Girl.
Seventeen-year-old Frieda Mintz, working as a bundler at Boston's Jordan Marsh department store, makes $8 a week and lives on her own. Seeking to leaven a dull work week by stepping out for an evening at the local dance halls, Frieda allows cheerful men to pay for her drinks and her company in the form of small gifts.
One afternoon, during a Liberty Loan parade in which Frieda represents the Jordan Marsh Liberty Girls, she catches sight of Army Pvt. Felix Morse, who stares at her, smiles and waves. A week and a half later, he is waiting for her when she gets off work. Charming, seemingly kind and definitely in need of a good time himself, Felix romances Frieda, taking her to a baseball game and allowing the young woman to fall in love with him.
Shortly after her brief romance, Frieda is visited by the Dickensian Mrs. Sprague: Back at Fort Devens, Frieda's beloved Felix has tested positive for syphilis, and the young man, good soldier that he is, has given authorities Frieda's name. Sprague has Frieda fired from her job and dispatched to a detention camp in rural Fitchburg. There the true horrors begin.
" 'Come in,' says a man in a shabby white smock, the cuffs of which appear freshly spattered. Greeting her, he doesn't bother looking at her face -- just her trunk, as if assessing livestock." Dr. Slocum quickly diagnoses a number of conditions he and his cohorts consider more or less equally shameful: Jewishness, "habitual self-abuse," recent intercourse, syphilis and gonorrhea.
The cure -- blue pills at each meal, injections of urine-colored liquid, tampons and a steel probe -- rival the pain and symptoms of the disease itself. Innocently, Frieda asks how long she will be incarcerated. " 'In terms of timing,' the doctor says, 'the name of the game is patience. Some more of that, and you wouldn't be in this mess. . . . A year with no symptoms? Maybe two.' "
Lowenthal, a writing teacher at Boston College and Lesley University, has accomplished the difficult feat of marrying the facts of history with the details that make a fictional life come alive. Even more impressive, he mimics the snappy dialogue and thoughts of the characters in the novels that Frieda so admires: "Tip lit a cigarette and offered her a puff, which she took even though she didn't smoke. To chase the rough heat, she sipped her cool drink; her throat was dazzled, pleasantly haywire." The reader is catapulted back to the era of "jaunty, borrowed hats," "fake-moles" and a man's "camphor scent tart with potential."
The tone turns more urgent and angry, however, when Frieda is detained. Dance tunes give way to the sounds of squabbling girls. Flirtation yields to a lesson in anarchy. The girls labor, wait, get tested and then wait some more. There are no lawyers to advocate on their behalf, no witnesses to their degradation. 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. ·
Anita Shreve's new novel, "Bodysurfing," will be published in April.