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Thursday, January 19, 2023

Nellie Bly: A Fascinating Trailblazer in Any Genre

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

"After all, what was sanity, except being able to contain the madness inside you?" (178)

If you know anything about Nellie Bly, it's probably that she was an intrepid newspaper reporter who went undercover at a mental institution on Blackwell's Island in New York City in 1887. That stunt alone was enough to make her famous. It also says a great deal about who she was, what she cared about, and how far she was willing to go to not just make a name for herself but also to create a better world for those she considered underprivileged and underserved. Just from this scant amount of information, it's easy to see that Bly was a fascinating person who lived an interesting life. No wonder I wanted to know more about her!

When I first heard about Madwoman by Louisa Treger, I thought it was a biography of the well-known journalist. Turns out, it's a novel—just one that feels very much like a biography. I don't have a problem with either genre, of course, but I would have preferred to read either a novel or a biography, not a mash-up of both that left me wondering what was true and what wasn't. Despite Madwoman's rather lackluster storytelling, though, I did find myself hooked. Bly's story is that compelling.  

Although Treger spends a few chapters on Bly's upbringing (which was fairly uneventful until her beloved father died and her mother married an abusive alcoholic), Madwoman focuses almost entirely on the reporter's experience on Blackwell's Island. The events leading up to her investigation show her pluck and her determination to be something extraordinary—a female journalist writing hard news—at a time when women reporters were almost unheard of, even in New York City. Those who were in the industry wrote only about safe, feminine subjects like cooking, cleaning, and fashion. Bly wanted more. By using courage and ingenuity, she infiltrated an esteemed institution almost entirely on her own, ushering in an era of bold, creative investigative reporting that hadn't been seen before. Her experience at the asylum was harrowing, naturally, but her observations of how cruelly patients were treated there helped change the way mental institutions cared for those confined within. 

Treger's prose is matter-of-fact and rather flat, but as I said, I still found myself caught up in Bly's story. Even though I knew she only ended up spending ten days in the asylum before her rescue was organized by executives at the New York World newspaper, I nevertheless worried for her. Treger did an excellent job of making her days in the grim institution feel as endless, dangerous and hopeless as they no doubt were. 

Madwoman is wrapped up with a few chapters about the aftermath of Bly's incredible stunt. Not only does Treger describe the public's eager fascination with Bly's resulting articles, her subsequent fame, and the change that was wrought because of her investigation, but she also talks about the toll those ten days in the asylum took on Bly both physically and emotionally. "She had faked madness to get into the asylum," writes Treger. "Now she was out of it, she must fake sanity" (234). The question at the heart of Madwoman is clear: How can anyone, no matter how sane or insane they are upon entrance, leave such a place after having been treated so horribly, with their mental faculties intact? 

I found Madwoman fascinating, but it did leave me wondering which parts of the story were true and which weren't. I also wanted to know what happened to Bly next. Did she continue taking on (or inventing for herself) dangerous assignments? What else did her long career in journalism accomplish? These questions led me to Ten Days a Madwoman by Deborah Noyes, a biography intended for middle-grade readers that covers Bly's whole life in 122 focused, informative pages (the title is misleading since the book only spends a few chapters on Bly's experience in the asylum). Honestly, since I got the information I wanted from Ten Days a Madwoman, I probably could have skipped Madwoman altogether, although it was interesting to compare/contrast the two books. Despite reading both, my desire to know more about Bly has not been entirely satiated. At some point, I still plan to read The Mad Girls of New York by Maya Rodale, Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the World by Matthew Goodman, and Ten Days In A Mad-House by Nellie Bly herself. 

Am I the only one fascinated by this fearless history-maker? Which books have you read and loved about the incredible Nellie Bly?

(Readalikes: Reminds me of Ten Days a Madwoman by Deborah Noyes and The Woman They Could Not Silence by Kate Moore as well as novels about mental asylums in 19th Century America, like Girl 99 by Greer MacallisterA Madness So Discreet by Mindy McGinnis, etc.)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for language (1 F-bomb, plus milder invectives), violence, and disturbing subject matter

To the FTC, with love: I bought a copy of Madwoman with a portion of the millions I earn from my lucrative career as a book blogger. Ha ha.

11 comments:

  1. I've always been fascinated by Nellie Bly! She was so fearless and intrepid. I love reading about all of her exploits. :D

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  2. Nellie Bly is a very fascinating character for sure. I read The Mad Girls of New York, which is also a fictionalized version of her story.

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  3. The idea of this book pretty much hooked me as you described it, but I totally get what you mean about not wanting a mash-up that leaves you unsure about the real history. I like when an author will include a note that explains where they took liberties and what's actually true. I love that you included read-alikes in your review, too! I'm going to check those out.

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  4. I don't know much at all about Nellie Bly, but this sounds fascinating. On the other hand, I completely agree with wanting to know which parts are true and which parts fictional; I'd probably save this in-between book for later, after reading some non-fiction about Bly.

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  5. I stumbled across a biography of Nellie Bly by accident years ago and was fascinated by her story. I think I'll pass on this but now I want to read more about Bly herself.

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  6. It does sound interesting, and I don't know much about her. Great review.

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  7. I fund Nellie Bly to be a fascinating person, but I was also disappointed by the flat prose in Madwoman. Interestingly there was an Australian female reporter Catherine Hay Thomson who got herself hired as a nurse in a Melbourne mental hospital to expose maltreatment a year before Nellie Bly

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  8. This sounds fascinating. Since I enjoy Melanie Benjamin's historical novels, I think I would be okay with the mix of fact and fiction. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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  9. I only know about Nellie Bly through book bloggers' posts about her (sad, I know). I do understand the frustration about fiction and biography. It feels like the author should have chosen one or at least explained in an afterword which bits were (or were not) accurate.

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  10. She definitely is an intriguing character, though I feel like her story is probably better served as nonfiction. Often times, reality is more interesting than anything imagined.

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  11. I've heard her name, but I don't know that I ever really knew anything about her. I can't imagine faking my way into a mental hospital back then because I've read conditions were horrible! How courageous on her part! This book doesn't sound like the best way to get her actual history when you didn't know which parts were fictional and which were real. I'd probably go with the middle-grade, 122 page one if I wanted to learn more. Great review!

    ReplyDelete

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Kill Her Twice by Stacey Lee

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