Home > Book, Genre, historic, nonfiction, Review > Book Review: Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World by Matthew Goodman

Book Review: Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World by Matthew Goodman

Old photographs of two women in suits against a background of a steamer ship.Summary:
In 1889, the world was obsessed with Jules Verne’s fictional work Around the World in 80 Days.  So when Nellie Bly, a human rights crusading female reporter in New York City, suggested taking a shp to Europe in first class then coming back in steerage, she was surprised to get a counter-offer: try to beat the fictional Fogg’s record for traveling around the world.  When The Cosmopolitan magazine heard about it, they sent their own female reporter, Elizabeth Bisland, on a trip trying to beat her.  Only she left a day later and would go the opposite direction.  Bly would travel east to west (Europe first), Bisland would travel west to east (continental US first).  The women weren’t just taking different routes around the world, they had quite different backgrounds and personalities.  Bly overcame a northern, working-class background to break into newspapers and crusaded for the less-fortunate whenever the paper would allow her to.  Bisland was the daughter of a plantation owner.  Raised in southern gentility and with an intense interest in everything British.  She wrote a literary column for The Cosmopolitan.  One of these women would win the race, but would either beat the fictional Phineas Fogg?

Review:
With my interest in women’s history, I was surprised when I saw this title on Netgalley that I had never heard of this race around the world, although I had heard of Nellie Bly, due to her investigative report into Bellevue Hospital (a mental institution).  I knew I had to request it, and I’m quite glad I got a review copy.  Goodman tells not just the story of these two women but also immerses the reader into the newly global world of the late 1890s, both the good and the bad.

Goodman starts the book by introducing us to the two women who will race around the world.  He does an excellent job using primary source materials to give us both how others saw these women and how they saw themselves.  For instance, in describing Elizabeth Bisland, Goodman writes:

One of her admirers, the writer Lafcadio Hearn, whom she had befriended in New Orleans, called her “a sort of goddess” and likened her conversation to hashish, leaving him disoriented for hours afterward. Another said, about talking with her, that he felt as if he were playing with “a beautiful dangerous leopard,” which he loved for not biting him. (loc 241)

While introducing the women, Goodman also talks at length about the role of women in journalism in the late 1800s and how hard it was for them to break into real reporting.  Jumping off from Bisland and Bly, describes how women were blocked from many journalism positions with excuses such as that the newsroom needed to be free to swear and not worry about a lady’s sensibilities.  Women were often barred to what was deemed the ladylike journalism of the society pages.  The hardest part of being a hardhitting female journalist at the time wasn’t the actual reporting but instead the reception of women in the newsroom.

The successful female journalist, McDonald suggested, should be composed of “one part nerve and two parts India rubber.” (loc 465)

Bisland and Bly and their race came at the beginning of having women journalists do some form of stunt journalism, which is how they started to break into hardhitting journalism.  Editors and owners discovered that readers enjoyed reading about women in stunt situations, such as learning how to stunt ride a horse, so this was their way in.  Thus, even if the reader dislikes the personalities of either or both of the racers, they come away with some level of respect for them both breaking into the business.

From here, Goodman starts following the women on their race around the world.  He takes the different legs of their journeys as a jumping-off point to discuss something historically relevant to that portion of the journey.  For instance, during Bly’s trip on the ocean liner to Europe, he discusses how the steamships worked, from the technical aspects of the steam to the class aspects of first class down to steerage.  During Bisland’s railroad trip across the United States, he discusses the railroad barons and the building of the transcontinental railroad.  Thus, the reader is getting both the story of the race and historical context.  It’s a wonderful way to learn, as the historical explanations flesh out the settings around and expectations of the women, and the women lend a sense of realness to the historical situations and settings being described.

After the completion of the trip (and, no, I won’t tell you who won), Goodman explores the impact of the trip on the women’s lives and follows the rest of their lives to their deaths.  This part may feel a bit long and irrelevant to some readers, however often when people become famous for doing something, no one talks about the long-lasting impact of that fame or what the rest of their lives are like.  Seeing how both women reacted to the trip, their careers, and others puts them in a more complete light, giving the reader a complete picture of what the race did in their lives.  This complete picture of both of their lives is something I really appreciated and that also demonstrated that one shouldn’t judge people too fast.  They and their lives may turn out differently than you expect at first.

What would have made me love the book is if I had come away feeling like I could respect or look up to either woman.  Unfortunately, by the time I heard the full story of both of their lives, I found them both to be so deeply flawed that I couldn’t do that.  I respect them for breaking into the newspaper business, and perhaps if I was a journalist myself that would be enough to make me look up to them.  But each had a fatal flaw that made this not be a book about two role models but instead a book about two women.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but it does keep it from being a book I would return to over and over again.

Overall, Goodman does an excellent job using the true story of two female journalists’ race around the world in 1889 to 1890 to build a solid picture of the increasingly global world of that time.  The reader will come away both with having learned an incredible true story and details about the 1800s they might not have known before, told in a delightfully compelling manner.  Some readers might be a bit bothered by how flawed the two women journalists are or by the fact that the book goes on past the race to tell about the end of their lives in detail.  However, these are minor things that do not distract too much from the literary qualities of this historical nonfiction.  Recommended to those interested in an easy-to-read, engaging historical nonfiction book focusing in on women’s history.  Particularly recommended to modern, women journalists.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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  1. July 13, 2014 at 1:35 pm

    I really enjoyed this book! I love when books combine personal stories with a look at broader issues. I also found that neither of the women were the role models I was hoping for when I picked this up, but they were fun to read about anyway.

    • July 16, 2014 at 11:25 am

      I just checked out your review. It looks like we had similar experiences reading it! It just goes to show that a good piece of narrative nonfiction can be enjoyable regardless of who it’s about. 🙂

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