Ami McKay on The Virgin Cure

First aired on The Next Chapter (16/01/12)


In Ami McKay's The Virgin Cure, readers meet a young girl named Moth. Moth lives with her mother on the Lower East Side of New York City, a place filled with disease, filth, brothels, street urchins and tenement slums. Moth is headstrong, independent and never gives up. After her mother sells her to a rich but cruel woman, she escapes and is recruited to join a brothel that specializes in virgins. Moth is a strong and vivid narrator and The Virgin Cure is very much her story.

But it wasn't supposed to be that way. Ami McKay set out to write the story of Dr. Sadie, a female doctor who works with the prostitutes, the poor and the homeless women and children of New York City, at a time when it was almost unimaginable for a woman to even be practicing medicine. Dr. Sadie is based on McKay's great-great grandmother, Sarah Fonda McIntosh, whose patients "affectionately called her Dr. Sadie," McKay revealed to host Shelagh Rogers in a recent interview on The Next Chapter.

McKay grew up admiring an oil portrait of Dr. Sadie, but knew little about her life. She was from a well-to-do family, but, for whatever reason, she decided to dedicate her life to helping others less fortunate. Her tombstone is even marked "Hero to the Poor."

"I like to think that she was a rebel," McKay said. "She cared very deeply about the social problems of the time, she cared about the huge gap that existed between the wealthy and the poor...She made this choice to go in a direction that by and large most women wouldn't have even thought of taking on."

The fictional Dr. Sadie and Moth live in New York City in 1871. McKay relied on several resources to bring this city to life. The work of Charles Dickens was one source of inspiration. "I had been reading Dickens since I was very young, so London has loomed large in my imagination," McKay said. "I wanted to do the same sort of thing for New York."

But pure imagination wasn't enough for McKay. She wanted her New York to be as historically accurate as possible, so she spent a lot of time at the New York Historical Society Library and Archives looking at primary sources, including weeklies, newspapers and "a lot of wonderful old guidebooks." One such source, an annual guide to the sex trade, called A Gentleman's Companion to New York City, features prominently in McKay's novel.

However, the heart of the book is Moth. The character who began as "Girl #1" latched onto McKay and simply would not let go. This was a journey McKay found just as thrilling as her days spent exploring museums and archives.

"She just took over. There was no stopping her," McKay admitted. "Once I made the decision to tell the story from her point of view, I would race to my desk every day to see where she would take me."


The Virgin Cure

by Ami McKay

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From the publisher:

"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...."

Read more at Knopf Canada.