You know a book is well written when you lose track of time whenever you sit down to read it. I raced through this book in under a week because every time I picked it up I never wanted to put it down. “Charity Girl” is the story of Freida Mintz, a young girl who is incarcerated by the military after testing positive for venereal disease. Shockingly, the story is based on an actual government program instituted during World War I to protect American soldiers from VD. Thousands of girls were rounded up and detained for months at a time for the sole crime of having an STD.
As you might imagine, sexism is one of the primary themes of this novel. Freida and the girls she is locked up with often wonder why the authorities aren’t out rounding up the men who gave them VD. They bristle at the doctors and social agents who seem to think the genesis of this disease is housed in their female bodies, and unbridled female sexuality the sole culprit behind its rapid spread.
The examination of sexism leads into an examination of the utility of passion, the nature of morality, and the creation of self. Freida considers her own passions and desires the things that truly make her unique. But with the house mother continually telling the girls their passions are wrong, are exactly what got them into all this trouble to begin with, Freida questions her deepest assumptions about who she is and what makes her Freida Mintz. She tries to forge her own identity while her jailers force their own definitions upon her. She wonders who is ultimately in control of deciding who she is. Do the opinions of others matter more than her own? Do the labels they insist on thrusting upon her, “dirty,” “whore,” “rebellious,” dictate reality?
The pace of the story is spectacular. It moves slowly but only because Lowenthal breathes such life into each individual scene. He paints a picture so detailed, so tactile, the reader feels as though s/he is in the moment with the characters. This wealth of detail extends to the characters themselves who Lowenthal has taken the time to thoroughly develop. The motivations of each are always clear and their actions always in synch with their characterization. This makes it very easy to empathize with each and every one of them, even the villains.
This rumination on the limits of freedom and the freedom found in limitation is engrossing and thought provoking. I would be idiot of the highest literary order if I did not recommend that you go out and read it immediately.