Title: Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World
Author: Matthew Goodman
Genre: Narrative nonfiction
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Acquired: From the publisher for review consideration
Review: On November 14, 1889, 25-year-old intrepid reporter Nellie Bly left New York city on a steamship heading for England, hoping to set a record for the fastest trip around the world and Phineas Fogg’s fictional trip in Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days. Hours later, 28-year-old journalist and literary critic Elizabeth Bisland left New York by train toward San Francisco, intending to race Bly around the globe. In Eighty Days author Matthew Goodman follows these two remarkable journalists on the endeavor, which for 70 odd days captivated the world.
Based on that description, I’m sure you can understand why I’m writing about this book. There’s pretty much no way I was going to let a book about two adventurous lady journalists get away from me — there really isn’t a more promising premise for a book. And happily, Matthew Goodman didn’t disappoint in the least. Eighty Days is a page-turning travel adventure, sprinkled with the kinds of historical tidbits that make up the best narrative nonfiction.
Part of the appeal of this story is just how usual it is: two female journalists set out to beat a (fictional) record for travel around the globe at a time when the most common question about women traveling was how they could possibly manage to travel with only one suitcase (can you feel my eyes rolling out of my head?). This is a time when women weren’t allowed and, frankly, weren’t expected to do big things, and yet Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland managed to do what seemed almost impossible through travel arrangements that seem almost impossible to manage even today.
And interestingly enough, the women couldn’t have been more different from one another. Bly made her name as an undercover reporter at Joseph Pulitzer’s The New York Worl, putting herself in dangerous situations like being sent to an asylum or posing as a woman trying to sell a baby to expose injustices in society. She was a muckraker and stunt journalist of the highest degree, again, at a time when women were expected or allowed to do these things.
Bisland, in contrast, made a name for herself as a more genteel lady. As a writer for The Cosmopolitan magazine, Bisland wrote poetry and book reviews, hosted a literary salon at her home, and was generally known as one of the most beautiful women in journalism. Yet they both found themselves on this incredible journey, which I think is just cool.
This is going to sound nerdy, I know, but I also loved the structure of this book. Goodman uses Bly and Bisland’s around the world contest as the main arc of the story, but he used that arc to make room for all sorts of historical tidbits that I just ate up: the story of the Statue of Liberty and why the United States switched to standardized times, for example. This was such a smart move on his part; much of Bly and Bisland’s story isn’t that exciting — there is only so much you can write about what life is like at sea or on a train (the two primary modes of travel). But the historical asides flesh out this story and make it a fascinating portrait of life at the turn of the century.
If you couldn’t tell, I was entirely delighted by Eighty Days. It’s a little on the long side, but for the most part I didn’t notice the pages passing. I was entirely absorbed by this tale of two unusual and brave women who challenged the world’s ideas of what was possible amidst some of the most challenging conditions of their time. Eighty Days is a highly recommended read.
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