After stumbling upon an obscure historical atrocity, Boston author brought it to light as a novel





From Leo Tolstoy to contemporary British novelist Pat Barker, writers of historical fiction have wrestled with the problem. How do you make the facts serve your story, rather than the other way around? How do you respect the history you're using without letting it take charge?

Boston novelist Michael Lowenthal faced the question with his new book, "Charity Girl." He stumbled on its little-known background and knew he wanted to spread the word. Only gradually did he realize that it had to be a novel, and that he couldn't let his attention to historic facts overwhelm his art.

"I'm waiting to see what people think," he said during an interview at his Roslindale home, "whether I went past that line." Complicating matters further, even his publisher is making as much of the history as of the fiction. " 'Charity Girl' examines a dark period in our history," the jacket copy begins, "when fear and patriotic fervor led to devastating consequences."

The facts are that during World War I the US government arrested 30,000 young women suspected of having venereal disease and locked at least 15,000 of them in detention centers, without recourse to courts, as part of a campaign to protect the armed forces from disease. Some were arrested just for wearing "provocative" clothing or being near troops. Though not unknown to historians, it appears that no books have been written about the program , and none of the women ever told their stories in public.

Author of two contemporary novels, Lowenthal was researching a freelance travel article in 2001 when he came across Susan Sontag's book "AIDS and Its Metaphors," which he had always wanted to read. "Flipping through this book," he said, "I saw a sentence about a proposal to quarantine people with AIDS, which she compared to the detention of girls who had venereal disease in World War I. I was thunderstruck. I had never heard of this." He asked others who had studied history, and they had the same reaction.

"It was like this little secret that I had stumbled upon," Lowenthal said.

Fired with curiosity, he dived into the subject, and eventually found journal articles, and chapters within books, that dealt with the program, but no separate book. He hunted for specific detainees, to read their stories, "but couldn't find one. I might find a reference to a girl with the first name and last initial, but all the writing I could find was by government officials."

In a sense, it was his own book that was eluding him. "I kept thinking, 'Where am I going with this? What am I looking for?' " said Lowenthal, who is 37. "At first I thought I should try this as a historical work, but I'm not trained as a historian. Then there was one of those daydreaming moments when I started to imagine a girl. Rather than trying to find a real one, I began to create one, and in that strange novelist's way, the girl I imagined became more real to me than those I had been reading about."

The girl is Frieda Mintz, 17 and Jewish, from Boston's West End. She moves out of her widowed mother's house to escape a coerced marriage, takes a room in a boarding house and a job wrapping packages at Jordan Marsh, the department store. Naive, lonely, and passionate, she is infected by a soldier and abruptly finds herself fired from her job, then locked up in a Fitchburg detention center by the Committee on Prevention of Social Evils Surrounding Military Camps.


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