It’s the book which Moth discovers in Mr. Wentworth’s study in Ami McKay’s second novel, The Virgin Cure (2011): “The Witches of New York was the book I’ found most intriguing.”
“Listing addresses from Broome to Nineteenth Street, it claimed to be a reliable guide to the soothsayers of the city. I put it on the top of the stack, planning to come back for it later to search for Mama in its pages.”
There is some truth to that, I suspect, for Ami McKay was inspired by a family member to write The Virgin Cure, as she explains in the author’s note at the end of that novel. And she has returned to The Witches of New York to continue that tale.
As Moth is at the heart of both tales, it is interesting to note that she began at the margins and only gradually inserted herself in the centre.
“Originally I thought that the narrative voice of The Virgin Cure would be Sadie’s, but as I searched for the best way to write the story I wanted to tell, I discovered that it wasn’t to be found in her voice after all. I spent hours walking the streets and sidewalks that had once been travelled by my great-great-grandmother in her work as a medical student and physician in the late 1800s. As I walked, I tried to conjure up the memory of her life and the women and children she had served. On Second Avenue, I stared at the place where the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children once stood. I went to Pear Tree Corner to see where Peter Stuyvesant’s great pear tree had lived for over two hundred years. I visited the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and looked into the small, dark rooms of the past. On those streets, I found my answer. I found the voice I’d been waiting for, the voice of a twelve-year-old street girl named Moth.”
The Virgin Cure was a difficult tale; Moth’s was a difficult young life.
“Miss. E. went on to explain that the girls are brought into the trade gradually, with care and consideration for their tender age. Men are required to court them, in a sense, buying the girl of their choosing candies and gifts as an overture to their deflowering. ‘My position here is as a watchful mother. I make certain the men who come for my girls are well-looking and kind. None of my girls has ever been hurt, or stolen away, or used as a virgin cure.’”
Despite Miss. E.’s role as watchful mother, the girls must unite to survive within a debilitating – even devastating – system. This sense of sisterhood – by circumstance rather than blood – infuses both novels with a sense of hope and promise where, in the hands of another storyteller, darkness could rule.
“We three near-whores, Mae, Alice and I, shared the upstairs quarters—the room where Dr. Sadie had examined me. There was teasing and rivalry of course, and sometimes sharp words, but, in the short time I’d been there, there’d been more kindness than cruelty. We were sisters of a sort—with Miss Everett acting as our strange, sly mother.”
The Witches of New York is much more than a list of addresses. Moth’s experiences are summarized succinctly, so that readers who have not met her on the page can settle into this new novel.
“By the age of thirteen she’d been sold three times over—first, by her mother as a lady’s maid, then by a brothel madam as a child whore, then…as a Circassian Beauty—all in the space of a year.”
Her’s is a tale of reinvention – transformation: Adelaide, Ada, Moth.
“She felt now, more than ever, that the city wasn’t done with her, or she with it. If there ever was a place where one could start again, it was Manhattan. Move a block, and your enemies become your friends. Move ten blocks and you might never see anyone you knew again. She’d gained a new costume, as it were, complete with a mask that could never be removed, and she’d soon learned there were advantages to that sort of thing as well as to calling herself a witch.”
The novel considers a variety of witches. “The world has need of more witches. Sibyl, oracle, seer, prophetess, hag—it is their hearts that wish to beat within you, their souls you see in the face of the Moon. The Mothers are always watching.”
It also suggests that this is as much about self-definition and identity than about an extenal belonging, an organized group.
Consider this excerpt from the grimoire of Eleanor St. Clair (as told to her by her mother): “Close your eyes and get some rest. We gain new worlds when we sleep.”
When we dream, we are all witches. Each of us can reinvent and reimagine, illuminate and transform. But risks remain.
Like ordinary and everyday fractures. “If her mother had ever held any witchery in her blood, the pathetic wretch had lost the better part of it the moment her heart had been broken by a man. She’d given whatever power she’d had away—to love, to drink, to laudanum and, eventually, to the river.”
And organized and deliberate prosecution. “He came from a long line of God-fearing men going back to the famed preachers of Massachusetts Bay, who’d lived there when the colony was rife with witchcraft. It’d been his ancestors, in the years after the trials, who’d continued to be watchful for the Devil’s workings within God’s people.”
As in The Virgin Cure, there are scenes of monstrous cruelty and both sharp and long-winded losses. Beneath the surface, questions of morality and miracles simmer.
Ami McKay gives the cauldron a good stir, allowing Moth to bubble to the top: many readers will undoubtedly queue up to have some “Tea and Sympathy” with her in Manhattan.
Have you read any of Ami McKay’s books? Is one of them on your TBR?
Have you read any fiction which was inspired by family history lately?