Although from an early age she is unabashedly sexual, the last thing that the 17-year-old Frieda Mintz expects while working as a bundle wrapper at the Jordan Marsh store in Boston
is a visit from a churchy government representative who accuses her of harboring a sexually transmitted disease.
Given Frieda's name and work address by Felix, a soldier stationed at Camp Devens Guard, Mrs. Sprague tells Frieda that her beloved boyfriend has been discovered to be infected by venereal disease. Naturally, Frieda is absolutely mortified as she was always sure that Felix, who had enticed her with "the sparkle of undeniable charm," could have ever named her as infected.
Frieda is sure the whole business is just a terrible error, but when the slipperiness
and tepid itchy creep starts to manifest itself, Frieda begins realize that something is terribly wrong. Soon the poor girl is beginning to drip all the time; then there's the other stuff, tackier, which stinks, and the constant burn inside her, this "sharp insistent flare."
Branded as an immoral whore, Frieda loses her job as her best mate and partner in crime, Lou - the veritable robber baroness – looks on, absolutely horrified. Then she makes a misguided attempt to travel to Felix's army camp, determined to search him out, sure that he still loves her, the memory of him "chafing away at her like sunburn."
A series of unfortunate events causes Frieda to be picked up for vagrancy. Together with a local prostitute, she's automatically placed in detention and sent to a rehabilitation facility that was once a former brothel. It is here that she finds her inner strength and also where she meets an assortment of other girls who have been jailed under similar circumstances.
Under the authorial and watchful glare of Mrs. Digges, the manager of this makeshift detention center, Frieda eventually meets the closeted lesbian Alice, who with her warm, bewitching breath and attempts at seduction offers Frieda a way out, perhaps even the possibility of reconnecting with Felix.
In this bittersweet tale of love and loss, author Michael Lowenthal sheds light on a little-known episode that took place during the tremulous time of World War
I, where thousands of young girls were victimized by men and by the government, automatically rounded up, suspected of harboring sexually transmitted diseases, and therefore assumed to be a threat the war effort.
Amidst the hostile glare of steel and glass, the probes and potions with their spooky, spiteful names, desire
is considered a fatal excuse, a selfish indulgence of an appetite. Yet although Frieda is the innocent party and was actually infected by Felix, she is the one who takes the brunt of the shame, the one who is considered diseased and delinquent.
The account of Frieda's arrival and subsequent examination in detention is indeed harrowing: the powerless fear of a young girl, desperate for the throbbing to end
- the throbbing of her glands and of her fear. She finds herself placed in an environment where the cure often rivals the disease
- the swabbings, the blue pills to swallow with each meal, the injections of urine-colored liquid.
Frieda runs away from her family for an independent life in the big city so she won't end up like her mama, warped by regret. Yet she's marked for life, for doing nothing illicit or even unusual other than picking men up for the sheer fun of it, the attendant benefit of a fun and frivolous night on the town.
Frieda also yearns to be someone who wants a better world, a girl who chooses "sky-high over safe," and she is repeatedly blindsided by the snag of her unrelenting and inexorable hopes. Unfortunately, she's just one of the many pretty girls "whose desire to help soldiers gets all mixed up with desire itself."