'Virgin Cure' Set in Grim 19th-Century New York; FICTION - BOOKS

Article excerpt

In 1871, in a squalid tenement on Chrystie Street, Moth Fenwick lives with her mother, a fortune teller whose affections Moth craves and never receives.

It's not that they're barely making ends meet; they barely have any ends to begin with. And so Moth's mother sells her 12-year-old into servitude to a wealthy woman who treats Moth with cruelty.

Moth escapes and winds up on the street, attempting to make a go of it as a pickpocket before landing at Miss Everett's euphemistically named "Infant School," where young girls are groomed and tutored for their deflowering, available to the highest bidder.

If this sounds Dickensian, the comparison is apt. So deep does "The Virgin Cure" take readers into the dark and desperate life of Lower Manhattan that it is easy to believe it was written 150 years ago as a treatise decrying the fate that awaited so many impoverished young girls.

And yet in Ami McKay's story men are mostly consigned to the margins. It's the women and girls in Moth's life who figure largely in her development, some who would take advantage of her innocence and others who would protect it. …