Sunday, March 16, 2008


Reading a book in a few short hours can mean any number of things. It can mean that the book was so damn good, you moved heaven and earth to read it, you stayed up all night, called off sick to work, took a longer lunch than you should have or read it at stoplights on the way home. Or, it can mean that there simply wasn't very much to it. In the case of Charity Girl, by Michael Lowenthal, the latter was true.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about my case of paralysis in the face of a $50 gift card, and how this book was the only one that seemed worthy of ownership. I'm contemplating taking the damn thing back, after starting it when I woke up this morning and finishing it before early afternoon.

Charity Girl is a bit of slang that crops up several times in the book without being fully, clearly explained. It's the only real mystery the book has to offer, but from what I could tell, a "charity girl" was a young woman of the early
20th century, usually independent but poor, who hangs around dance halls trying to meet men who will pay her way in. Frieda, the heroine of the novel, is one of these. She has run away from home and an arranged marriage to Boston, where she has a job at Jordan Marsh. She lives on little but hope, renting a single room, eating once a day and living for nights at the dance hall with her best friend. But never going all the way with any of her patrons, until she meets the "special" soldier who gives her VD.

From there, her life spirals out of control. She gets a visit from some sort of official woman at work, loses her job, then starts to get really sick. She tries to find her soldier to ask him for help, but instead gets arrested and detained in a special house for girls who've been infecting the soldiers with their VD and loose morals.

Historical fiction is hard to get just right. It's easy to overlook the fact that history is lived by people like you and me, who often don't pay a whole lot of attention to it. Would the average uneducated young girl of the times, caught up in such a scenario, be able to identify the larger societal forces that contributed to her misfortune? Would she rail against a system that is sexist, racist, anti-Semitic, stupidly patriotic and classist? Or would she just be more likely to express her situation as being "bullshit"?

In the end, Charity Girl doesn't yield any more in execution than it did in concept. You can learn everything the book has to share by reading its jacket. The characters are flat and archetypal, the plot line is predictable, and the whole thing feels like a simple attempt to fictionalize history, not any sort of organic story. Lowenthal also makes the same grave mistake found at the end of Kevin Baker's Dreamland where he feels the necessity to give you the rest of the character's life at a gallop (except, unlike Baker, he doesn't hedge his bets with too many maybes: "Maybe she died in the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist plant, or maybe she reunited with Sam and moved upstate just in time...") He would've done much better to give you a little hint that Frieda, post-release, wound up being just fine and leading a happy life.

This one was a real disappointment. I was at Barnes and Noble again this weekend, and picked up two new books, so hopefully these will be better.

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