Trekking from coast to coast on a busy tour to promote her new novel, The Virgin Cure, bestselling Nova Scotia author Ami McKay has discovered something new and "delightful" among the eager audiences of mainly women who greet her in cities and towns across Canada: their daughters.
The mothers McKay expected, having captured their good graces so commandingly with her first novel, The Birth House, a No. 1 bestseller and book-club favourite that explored the tradition and practices of midwifery in 19th-century Nova Scotia. But the unexpected appearance of teenaged girls at her readings from The Virgin Cure was uncannily appropriate: Told in the voice of a girl growing up on the very mean streets of 19th-century New York, "born to a slum-house mystic and the man who broke her heart," The Virgin Cure couldn't have been better made if its only purpose was to turn curious young women into lifelong readers.
Not that that was her purpose, McKay hastens to say. What led her to explore the Dickensian milieu of Lower Manhattan in the 1870s was the legacy of a great-great-grandmother who had worked there as a doctor treating the poor – among them an estimated 30,000 homeless orphan children. The Virgin Cure began as a fictionalized account of the doctor's story, told in her voice. But as McKay wrote, it was the voice of a young orphan girl she named Moth who began to speak loudest in her mind.
"Every time I sat down at my desk I wanted to know where she was going to take me next," the author recalls. "I really felt almost led by the character," she adds. "She was almost begging to have it be her voice that told the story."
And so young Moth had her way, the willing author almost inadvertently going along with her to create a coming-of-age story that, although not aimed directly at young adults, nonetheless reads like a classic of the genre. If the daughters were captivated by their mothers' copies of The Birth House, they stand to be riveted by the adventures of Moth in The Virgin Cure.
The book is already a bestseller, even overtaking The Birth House on Canadian lists. With its universally appealing New York setting and a well-promoted U.S. edition to be published next spring, The Virgin Cure promises to make its author an international star.
McKay spares no horrors in her depiction of the life led by Moth, who is saved from starvation by agreeing to train as a prostitute, and throughout the novel she punctuates the melodrama with expository sidebars that artfully fill in details of the rich, often appalling social history of 19th-century New York. But like much of the popular fiction of that day – McKay doesn't hesitate to name-check Horatio Alger, middlebrow maestro of the urban rag-to-riches fable – it aims mainly to inspire.
In the Alger formula, "the boy always rises up to some wonderful ending," according to McKay. "I felt like it was a girl's turn," she adds.
But Moth doesn't rise up to find true love, as girls are wont to do in formula novels of any era. Her much more fulfilling fate is to survive and thrive without submitting to any of the degradations offered by unchecked patriarchy.
To the suggestion that such horrors are too distant to move contemporary readers, McKay gestures out the window of her publisher's office, which shows a view of flapping tarpaulins and tents at the Occupy Toronto encampment.
"I've actually stopped and visited every Occupy site in Canada where I've gone to do readings," she says, "just because I want to know what it is about and what's happening there. And there are some very similar issues to those I explore in The Virgin Cure."
In exploring the Occupy movement, McKay deliberately emulates the example of her great-great-grandmother. "Her work was with these kids, and she was stopping every day and trying to figure out who they were, and acknowledge them," McKay says.
The important story of the Occupy movement is that the dispossessed are being heard again, according to McKay. "They're able to tell their story for the first time," she says. "And there are people there who ask them what their names are and where they're come from, and to me that's at the heart of this novel."