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'Charity Girl' brings shameful chapter of history to light

Charity Girl
By Michael Lowenthal
Houghton Mifflin, 323 pp., $24

During World War I, thousands of American women were held in detention centers across the country, sometimes for months at a time. The charge? Possibly being infected with venereal disease, which meant they might pose a threat to US troops. During this anti-vice frenzy, a woman could be arrested if she ventured too near a military base; her only "crime" was being dressed too flashily or simply walking alone.

Author Michael Lowenthal, who teaches at Boston College, came across this shocking story when he was browsing through Susan Sontag's "AIDS and Its Metaphors. " What captured his attention was "30,000 Women Arrested in U.S. During World War I, Held on Suspicion of Having VD; 15,000 of Those Who Tested Positive Held."

He began research, only to find there was scant information available. He decided a novel would be a powerful way to reveal this shadowy aspect of the war at home. "Charity Girl" tells a deeply disturbing story with compassion and sly cleverness.

As Lowenthal depicts it, World War I-era Boston brims with new-century vigor and patriotic pride. Pristine mansions gleam on Commonwealth Ave., the Red Sox are world champions, and leaflets flutter through the streets touting slogans like "Soldiers Give Their Lives. What Will You Give?"

Numerous period details add a convincing depth: Girls named Minnie and Sadie speak with credible street slang; Caruso sings on a record; a young lady's wrist is graced with an Elgin watch.

Seventeen-year old Frieda Mintz yearns to embrace everything the city has to offer. She has recently fled a cheerless mother and an impending marriage to a middle-age widower. The role of full-time caregiver does not appeal to a young woman who can name each new automobile on the road, and who can't wait to view the next "Hazards of Helen" adventure movie.

Frieda earns a steady, if low, wage as a "bundle wrapper" at Jordan Marsh department store. Fellow salesclerks show her how to stretch her paycheck (penny candy can replace a real lunch), and how to have a good time on the cheap.

Each week, scores of working girls sashay into local dance halls to flirt with men whose money barely outweighs their boorishness. These are "charity girls," who trade a kiss and a cuddle for dinner or a necklace or a new hat. They walk the wide wobbly line between "good" girl and "bad" girl, at a time when being deemed a bad girl holds many hidden dangers.

By the turn of the last century, local and federal authorities had formed various anti-vice groups to stop the spread of venereal disease. When a disease has a social component, as shown by the history of AIDs, education and treatment can become complex and politically charged.

Frieda is usually more prudent than many of her friends, but one day she is swept off her feet by Felix Morse, a handsome and witty soldier stationed at Fort Devens. An outing to Fenway Park turns into a drunken, overly romantic evening. Soon after, Frieda is tracked down by a member of the clumsily named but real Massachusetts Committee on Prevention of Social Evils Surrounding Military Camps, who informs Frieda that her beau has tested positive for venereal disease and named her as his last contact.

Summoning equal parts courage and naivete, Frieda sets out to meet with Felix, but before she can accomplish her mission, she's arrested and whisked off to a detention center in rural Fitchburg. The detainees spend their days doing chores and enduring compulsory, humiliating medical treatment. For friends, family, and employers, these women have simply disappeared.

Unlike Frieda's Boston friends, the inmates can seem a bit too precisely drawn: There's a labor organizer, smart-talking prostitutes, and a party girl with a heart of gold. The staff offers more personality texture: a weary male doctor who'd rather be anywhere but there, the matronly director who can be severe or unnervingly idealistic; and a shrewd social worker who holds the most control over the girls' futures. To survive, and find a way out, Frieda must determine whom she can trust.

The most chilling aspect of "Charity Girl" is that none of the main characters are black-hearted villains; there are only short sighted bureaucrats trying to do good, who instead generate brutal policies for thousands of vulnerable women.