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A bit of history is best as story

Details, in a book of fiction set in a distinct historical period remote from the average reader's experience, can make all the difference. Michael Lowenthal understands this. And so, on page 50 of his new novel, "Charity Girl," we get the peanuts and the pistachios.

Bags of nuts, you see, were munched by the raucous crowds attending World Series games in Boston in 1918. And so, when dashing soldier Felix Morse sweeps shopgirl Frieda Mintz off her feet -- and into the stands of a Red Sox game -- bags of nuts are what Felix buys for Frieda as a gift. "Felix bought two fist-sized brown bags: peanuts and pistachios, as promised," Lowenthal writes.

And even though 18-year-old Frieda is reluctant at first to try the pistachios she does, and delightedly gives in to their salty goodness, the same way she gives in to Felix's sexual attentions later that night. Big mistake, it turns out. Or maybe not -- Frieda, even though she immediately comes down with venereal disease, never stops thinking about Felix Morse or longing for him.

"Charity Girl" is the well-told, finely detailed story of what happens to the fictional Frieda Mintz after that single night of passion with her soldier. It is also the story, by extension, of what happened -- in real-life, now -- to thousands of American women who were arrested and jailed during World War I because they had, or were suspected of having, venereal diseases. At any rate, they were promiscuous, or seemed to be so to those who observed them -- "charity girls," sleeping about with the soldiers, if not actual prostitutes.

These young women -- 30,000 in all, eventually -- were seen by the U.S. government as a threat to the fighting men, and so were locked up at 43 sites around the country, reports Lowenthal. Lowenthal researched the women after stumbling over a mention of them found while browsing in the library; the subject matter, he said, seemed to cry out for novelization.

Lowenthal's energy tapers off toward the end of Frieda's tale. But that's a small quibble to make about a book such as this, which manages to both illuminate and entertain. It's a real find.



Charity Girl

By Michael Lowenthal

Houghton Mifflin, 336 pages, $24

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