In 1871, in a squalid tenement on Chrystie Street, 12-year-old Moth Fenwick lives with her mother, a fortune teller whose affections Moth craves and never receives.
It's not that they're barely making ends meet; they barely have any ends to begin with. And so Moth's mother sells her into servitude to a wealthy woman who treats Moth with cruelty.
Moth escapes and winds up on the street, attempting to make a go of it as a pickpocket before landing at Miss Everett's euphemistically named "Infant School," where young girls are groomed and tutored for their deflowering, available to the highest bidder.
If this sounds Dickensian, the comparison is apt. So well researched is this novel, so deep does it take readers into the dark and desperate life of Lower Manhattan that it is easy to believe it was written 150 years ago as a treatise decrying the fate that awaited so many impoverished young girls.
And yet interestingly, in McKay's story men are mostly consigned to the margins. It's the women and girls in Moth's life who figure largely in her development, some who would take advantage of her innocence and others who would rather protect it.
Among the latter is Dr. Sadie, who treats the poor and destitute and takes an interest in Moth. (Side note: Sadie is based on McKay's great-great-grandmother, a doctor in late 19th-century New York who was one of the first women to graduate from the school founded by Elizabeth Blackwell and her sister Emily.)
Moth herself is a remarkable character, at once jaded and naive - knowledgeable enough in the ways of the world that she recognizes what she's going to need to sacrifice for her security, yet innocent enough to trust the good intentions of most people. Her story is told in her own voice, layered with journal entries from Sadie and interjections from newspaper stories and opinion pieces. The novel is an immersive coming-of-age story, unnerving and powerful.