Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Pg. 69: "Charity Girl"

Michael Lowenthal is the author of the novels Charity Girl, Avoidance, and The Same Embrace. His short stories and nonfiction have appeared in most of the best places.

I asked him to apply the "page 69 test" to Charity Girl. Here is what he reported:
Charity Girl is a novel based on a disturbing, little-remembered episode in American history: our government's World War I campaign against women with venereal disease, during which fifteen thousand women were incarcerated in federally funded detention homes, with no formal charges, no trials, and sentences of indefinite duration.

When I stumbled upon this history, I knew I wanted to write about it. But how to make a novel out of bare facts? (I found reports by government officials and social workers but no account by a woman who herself was detained.)

My challenge, then, was to invent a character and the events that would lead her to this frightening end. I dreamed my way to Frieda, a 17-year-old daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants in Boston. She secures a job at a department store and strikes out on her own, escaping her repressive mother and a marriage to a wealthy widower twice her age. Determined to find love on her own terms, she is intoxicated by her new-found freedom and the patriotic fervor of the day. That is, until a soldier reports her as his last sexual contact, sweeping her up in the government's crusade.

To help myself empathize with these long-ago characters, I gave Frieda my grandmother's name, and I gave her soldier beau, Felix, a well-to-do background - and a stately home - similar to my grandfather's.

Page 69 comes at the end Frieda and Felix's one passionate evening together. Felix goads Frieda into taking the wheel of a fancy automobile, the owner of which she believes to be the father of Felix's soldier pal. In the course of this single page, Frieda gets whiplashed from giddy delight (the thrill of driving this stylish car, of having had sex with Felix) to angry disappointment: she finds out the owner's true identity, and this marks the moment of her first betrayal by Felix.

Page 69 is thus an enactment-in-miniature of Frieda's emotional experience throughout the novel. It's a moment whose consequences will hang over the whole story.

The page does include, if glancingly, many of the novel's key elements: the war, Fenway Park, automobiles and driving, differences in social class, romance. It doesn't include: venereal disease or the detention home.

In terms of prose style, it's not a page I'd use to tout my talents. But there are a couple of lines I'm fond of - for example, when Frieda takes a curve at too high a speed: “Up on two tires, the Locomobile teetered. Hanging, hanging, undone.”
Many thanks to Michael for the input.

Read one excerpt or another, and check out this interview.

Among the praise for Charity Girl:
"Lively and illuminating. . . [Lowenthal] has accomplished the difficult feat of marrying the facts of history with the details that make a fictional life come alive. That few readers of Lowenthal's deserving novel will ever have heard of the detention of the 'charity girls' is astonishing. That Lowenthal has made us aware of them is nothing short of a gift."
Anita Shreve, Washington Post

"Lowenthal's narrative style is perfect for a heroine who suffers but remains a survivor, striking just the right mix of dark and light, worldly and innocent. . . A convincing portrait of a long-lost world."
New York Times Book Review

"Even while capturing the great sweep of the period, Charity Girl celebrates most the depth of the characters' lives and the immediate energy of Boston circa World War I. Never opting for simplistic political parallels, Michael Lowenthal evokes empathy in unpredictable and touching ways through his crisp, charming prose. Highly accomplished, Charity Girl is a gift to all readers of quality historical and literary fiction."
— Matthew Pearl, author of The Dante Club and The Poe Shadow

"This is a deeply affecting and important novel. With Charity Girl, Michael Lowenthal at a stroke establishes himself as a significant voice in American fiction. All good historical novels mirror the past in ways that interpret the present, and this novel does just that. It's a vivid story about a shameful chapter in U.S. history, and one that has obvious implication for the current political crisis. I was thoroughly engaged by Frieda Mintz, and her life and predicament will stay with me for years to come."
— Jay Parini, author of The Last Station and The Apprentice Lover
Charity Girl was inspired by a line in Susan Sontag’s AIDS and Its Metaphors, in which she likens the incarceration of American women during World War I to the internment of Americans of Japanese ancestry during World War II. Lowenthal says, “The latter historical episode I had, of course, heard about, but not the first . . . I immediately had two thoughts: (1) how awful, and (2) what a great basis for a novel.”

Read Michael's contribution to Esquire's "Napkin Project."

Visit his website and learn about his other writing.

Previous "page 69 tests:"
Niraj Kapur, Heaven's Delight
Keith Dixon, The Art of Losing
David Edgerton, The Shock of the Old
Mary Sharratt, The Vanishing Point
David Fulmer, The Dying Crapshooter's Blues
Anya Ulinich, Petropolis
Jagdish Bhagwati, In Defense of Globalization
Olen Steinhauer, Liberation Movements
Andrei Markovits, Uncouth Nation
Julie Kistler, Scandal
Robert Ward, Four Kinds of Rain
Tim Harford, The Undercover Economist
William Landay, The Strangler
Kate Holden, In My Skin
Brian Wansick, Mindless Eating
Noria Jablonski, Human Oddities
Ruth Scurr, Fatal Purity
Neal Pollack, Alternadad
Bella DePaulo, Singled Out
Steve Hamilton, A Stolen Season
Eric Klinenberg, Fighting for Air
Donna Moore, ...Go to Helena Handbasket
Louis Bayard, The Pale Blue Eye
Neal Thompson, Riding with the Devil
Sherry Argov, Why Men Marry Bitches
P.J. Parrish, An Unquiet Grave
Tyler Knox, Kockroach
Andrew Rehfeld, The Concept of Constituency
Laura Wiess, Such a Pretty Girl
Jeremy Blachman, Anonymous Lawyer
Andrew Pyper, The Wildfire Season
Wendy Werris, An Alphabetical Life
Laura Lippman, What the Dead Know
Meghan Daum, The Quality of Life Report
Scott Reynolds Nelson, Steel Drivin' Man
Richard Aleas, Little Girl Lost
Paul Collins, The Trouble With Tom
John McFetridge, Dirty Sweet
Michael Kazin, A Godly Hero
Bill Crider, Murder Among the OWLS
Zachary Shore, Breeding Bin Ladens
Rolf Potts, Vagabonding
Matt Haig, The Dead Fathers Club
Lawrence Light, Fear & Greed
Simon Read, In The Dark
Sandra Ruttan, Suspicious Circumstances
Henry Ansgar Kelly, Satan: A Biography
Alison Gaylin, You Kill Me
Gayle Lynds, The Last Spymaster
Jim Lehrer, The Phony Marine
Julie Phillips, James Tiptree, Jr.
Debra Ginsberg, Blind Submission
Sarah Katherine Lewis, Indecent
Peter Orner, The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo
William Easterly, The White Man's Burden
Danielle Trussoni, Falling Through the Earth
Andrew Blechman, Pigeons
Anne Perry, A Christmas Secret
Elaine Showalter, Faculty Towers
Kat Richardson, Greywalker
Michael Bess, Choices Under Fire
Masha Hamilton, The Camel Bookmobile
Alex Beam, Gracefully Insane
Nicholas Lemann, Redemption
Jason Sokol, There Goes My Everything
Wendy Steiner, Venus in Exile
Josh Chafetz, Democracy’s Privileged Few
Anne Frasier, Pale Immortal
Michael Lewis, The Blind Side
David A. Bell, The First Total War
Brett Ellen Block, The Lightning Rule
Rosanna Hertz, Single by Chance, Mothers by Choice
Jason Starr, Lights Out
Robert Vitalis, America's Kingdom
Stephen Elliott, My Girlfriend Comes To The City And Beats Me Up
Colin McGinn, The Power of Movies
Sean Chercover, Big City, Bad Blood
Sigrid Nunez, The Last of Her Kind
Stanley Fish, How Milton Works
James Longenbach, The Resistance to Poetry
Margaret Lowrie Robertson, Season of Betrayal
Sy Montgomery, The Good Good Pig
Allison Burnett, The House Beautiful
Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, A History
Ed Lynskey, The Dirt-Brown Derby
Cindy Dyson, And She Was
Simon Blackburn, Truth
Brian Freeman, Stripped
Alyson M. Cole, The Cult of True Victimhood
Jeff Biggers, In the Sierra Madre
Jeff Broadwater, George Mason, Forgotten Founder
Alicia Steimberg, Andrea Labinger (trans.), The Rainforest
Michael Grunwald, The Swamp
Darrin McMahon, Happiness: A History
Leo Braudy, From Chivalry to Terrorism
David Nasaw, Andrew Carnegie
Leah Hager Cohen, Train Go Sorry
Chris Grabenstein, Slay Ride
David Helvarg, Blue Frontier
Marina Warner, Phantasmagoria
Bill Crider, A Mammoth Murder
Robert W. Bennett, Taming the Electoral College
Nicholas Stern et al, Stern Review Report
Kerry Emanuel, Divine Wind
Adam Langer, The Washington Story
Michael Scott Moore, Too Much of Nothing
Frank Schaeffer, Baby Jack
Wyn Cooper, Postcards from the Interior
Ivan Goncharov, Oblomov
Maureen Ogle, Ambitious Brew
Cass Sunstein, Infotopia
Paul W. Kahn, Out of Eden
Paul Lewis, Cracking Up
Pagan Kennedy, Confessions of a Memory Eater
David Greenberg, Nixon's Shadow
Duane Swierczynski, The Wheelman
George Levine, Darwin Loves You
John Barlow, Intoxicated
Alicia Steimberg, The Rainforest
Alan Wolfe, Does American Democracy Still Work?
John Dickerson, On Her Trail
Marcus Sakey, The Blade Itself
Randy Boyagoda, Governor of the Northern Province
John Gittings, The Changing Face of China
Rachel Kadish, Tolstoy Lied
Eric Rauchway, Blessed Among Nations
Tim Brookes, Guitar and other books
Ruth Padel, Tigers in Red Weather
William Haywood Henderson, Augusta Locke
Jed Horne, Breach of Faith
Robert Greer, The Fourth Perspective
David Plotz, The Genius Factory
Michael Allen Dymmoch, White Tiger
Patrick Thaddeus Jackson, Civilizing the Enemy
Tom Lutz, Doing Nothing
Libby Fischer Hellmann, A Shot To Die For
Nelson Algren, The Man With the Golden Arm
Bob Harris, Prisoner of Trebekistan
Elaine Flinn, Deadly Collection
Louise Welsh, The Bullet Trick
Gregg Hurwitz, Last Shot
Martha Powers, Death Angel
N.M. Kelby, Whale Season
Mario Acevedo, The Nymphos of Rocky Flats
Dominic Smith, The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre
Simon Blackburn, Lust
Linda L. Richards, Calculated Loss
Kevin Guilfoile, Cast of Shadows
Ronlyn Domingue, The Mercy of Thin Air
Shari Caudron, Who Are You People?
Marisha Pessl, Special Topics in Calamity Physics
John Sutherland, How to Read a Novel
Steven Miles, Oath Betrayed
Alan Brown, Audrey Hepburn's Neck
Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor's Tale

--Marshal Zeringue