From the Publisher
Following in the footsteps of The Birth House, her
powerful debut novel, The Virgin Cure secures Ami
McKay''s place as one of our most beguiling storytellers. (Not that
it has to… that is pretty much taken care of!)
"I am Moth, a girl from the lowest part of Chrystie Street, born to
a slum-house mystic and the man who broke her heart." So begins
The Virgin Cure, a novel set in the tenements of
lower Manhattan in the year 1871. As a young child, Moth''s father
smiled, tipped his hat and walked away from his wife and daughter
forever, and Moth has never stopped imagining that one day they may
be reunited - despite knowing in her heart what he chose over them.
Her hard mother is barely making a living with her fortune-telling,
sometimes for well-heeled clients, yet Moth is all too aware of how
she really pays the rent.
Life would be so much better, Moth knows, if fortune had gone the
other way - if only she''d had the luxury of a good family and some
station in life. The young Moth spends her days wandering the
streets of her own and better neighbourhoods, imagining what days
are like for the wealthy women whose grand yet forbidding gardens
she slips through when no one''s looking. Yet every night Moth must
return to the disease- and grief-ridden tenements she calls
The summer Moth turns twelve, her mother puts a halt to her
explorations by selling her boots to a local vendor, convinced that
Moth was planning to run away. Wanting to make the most of her
every asset, she also sells Moth to a wealthy woman as a servant,
with no intention of ever seeing her again.
These betrayals lead Moth to the wild, murky world of the Bowery,
filled with house-thieves, pickpockets, beggars, sideshow freaks
and prostitutes, but also a locale frequented by New York''s social
elite. Their patronage supports the shadowy undersphere, where
businesses can flourish if they truly understand the importance of
wealth and social standing - and of keeping secrets. In that world
Moth meets Miss Everett, the owner of a brothel simply known as an
"infant school." There Moth finds the orderly solace she has always
wanted, and begins to imagine herself embarking upon a new
Yet salvation does not come without its price: Miss Everett caters
to gentlemen who pay dearly for companions who are "willing and
clean," and the most desirable of them all are young virgins like
Moth. That''s not the worst of the situation, though. In a time and
place where mysterious illnesses ravage those who haven''t been
cautious, no matter their social station, diseased men yearn for a
"virgin cure" - thinking that deflowering a "fresh maid" can heal
the incurable and tainted.
Through the friendship of Dr. Sadie, a female physician who works
to help young women like her, Moth learns to question and observe
the world around her. Moth''s new friends are falling prey to fates
both expected and forced upon them, yet she knows the law will not
protect her, and that polite society ignores her. Still she dreams
of answering to no one but herself. There''s a high price for such
independence, though, and no one knows that better than a girl from
About the Author
Ami McKay was born and raised in rural Indiana. After an
undergraduate degree in music education and graduate studies in
musicology at Indiana State University, she moved to Chicago to
teach music at an inner city high school for the arts. In her off
hours she would write, filling notebooks and journals with short
stories and ideas for novels.
In 2000, McKay moved to Scots Bay, Nova Scotia (for the love of a
good Canadian man). Waiting for her residency papers to be
processed gave her plenty of time to embrace the writing life.
After much prodding from her partner, she started sending her
writing out into the world. She began by writing thank-you notes to
people she didn't know, in an effort to start small. This, her
first attempt at sharing her writing, led to an appearance on
The Oprah Winfrey Show.
Soon McKay took bigger steps toward living the writing life. A
summer workshop called "Writing for Radio" opened new doors and the
opportunity to combine her love of music and sound with her passion
for writing. This experience led to writing and producing
documentaries for CBC Radio as well as other freelance assignments.
McKay's work has since aired on CBC Radio's Maritime
Magazine, This Morning, Outfront and The
Sunday Edition. Her documentary Daughter of Family G
won an Excellence in Journalism Medallion at the 2003 Atlantic
Also in 2003, an apprenticeship in the Writers' Federation of Nova
Scotia's mentorship program gave Ami McKay the excuse she needed to
complete a first draft of The Birth House, her
debut novel. Published as a selection of Knopf Canada's prestigious
New Face of Fiction program, The Birth House went
on to be a #1 bestseller in Canada, the winner of
three CBA Libris Awards, nominated for the International IMPAC
Dublin Literary Award and a book club favourite around the world.
Her second novel, The Virgin Cure, is inspired by
the life of her great-great-grandmother Dr. Sarah Fonda Mackintosh,
a female physician in nineteenth-century New York.
1. Miss Everett could be seen as doing work that "saves" girls,
whether from poverty or from working the streets, and she is an
established member of New York society. What do you think of this
argument, considering the few options for young girls like
2. What makes Moth such a survivor? Is she better or worse off
without her mother?
3. The young Moth spends a lot of time fantasizing about the
lives of the wealthy and how her life could have been different. Do
Moth's early experiences with the Wentworths dispel some of those
fantasies, or shore them up?
4. Moth's mother tells Mrs. Wentworth that Moth's name is "Miss
Fenwick." Later, Moth chooses to use the name "Ada" while she's in
the brothel. How do these and other names change the way Moth sees
herself? How does calling herself "Ada" help her to cope?
5. How does Ami McKay use mystery and hidden secrets in
The Virgin Cure? For instance, consider the
various characters who live secret lives, or the importance of
fortune-telling, or the role of the old Stuyvesant pear tree in the
lives of early immigrants.
6. Most of the girls in Miss Everett's house believe their lives
can only improve if they win the continued affection of one of her
rich clients. Dr. Sadie ensures that this doesn't happen for Moth
by taking her to visit Katherine Tully. Why do you think Miss
Everett lets Moth go along with the doctor for the day?
7. What sorts of sacrifices does Dr. Sadie have to make in her
work and her life?
8. Discuss the title of this novel and the different ways it
relates to the story within its pages. Discuss the devastating myth
of the "virgin cure" - not only how it took hold in the New York of
this novel, but how it continues today in parts of our world.
9. What character in this novel intrigues you the most, and
10. Throughout the novel, McKay uses elements like Dr. Sadie's
diary, margin notes and newspaper ads to convey information,
whether about her characters or more generally about the New York
of the day. Talk about the effect these parts of the narrative had
on your reading, and your experience of Moth's world.
11. Reread the Evening Star article that appears just
before the novel's epilogue - a report on the debut of the
Circassian Beauty at Dink's Museum. Compare the exotic story about
her past with what really happened to Moth.
12. At the end of the novel Moth lives in a home on Gramercy
Park and seems to have reached her life-long goal - yet she's only
nineteen. What do you think the future holds for Moth?