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

EightyDaysFrom Goodreads: On November 14, 1889, Nellie Bly, the crusading young female reporter for Joseph Pulitzer’s World newspaper, left New York City by steamship on a quest to break the record for the fastest trip around the world. Also departing from New York that day—and heading in the opposite direction by train—was a young journalist from The Cosmopolitan magazine, Elizabeth Bisland. Each woman was determined to outdo Jules Verne’s fictional hero Phileas Fogg and circle the globe in less than eighty days. The dramatic race that ensued would span twenty-eight thousand miles, captivate the nation, and change both competitors’ lives forever.

☺☺☺☺

I recently read Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, and I did that mostly because I really wanted to read this book and felt that I should know Verne’s book first. While I did not like the classic adventure story, I much enjoyed Goodman’s story.

The name Nellie Bly rang a faint bell, but I had never heard of Elizabeth Bisland. The thought that two women set out to break Phileas Fogg’s fictional record, in a time when the world was still very much dominated by men, was intriguing. I also like that particular historical time period.

Bly and Bisland were different in many aspects—social background, upbringing, and lifestyle—yet both became successful journalists in New York City; they were among the first women to write about more than just “women’s issues.” While Bly worked on sensational stories and gained fame when she had herself confined to an insane asylum to expose the horrible conditions there, Bisland preferred to write about literature and generally led a more “refined” life. One other, huge difference: Nellie Bly pushed the idea traveling around the world by herself for over a year before she was allowed to go, whereas Bisland had to leave on a moment’s notice, when her employer decided a “race” would get his magazine a needed push in circulation. Bly traveled east with only one bag, and Bisland traveled west with slightly more luggage. While Bisland was aware that she was racing against Nellie Bly, the latter only found out while she was already on the road.

It is obvious that Goodman spent a lot of time researching his book. He does a wonderful job bringing both women to life and describing how they experienced the journey. It was interesting to read how two such different women dealt with the challenges of the journey. Nellie Bly even got the chance to meet Jules Verne—a part that I found very interesting. I wondered how Jules Verne would feel about having his “perfect British gentleman’s” record broken by an American woman. (Without giving too much away, I can say that it was an amicable meeting.)

There are lots of historical details woven into the story, and I enjoyed reading about most of them. At times, though, they were a little distracting from the story. For example, Joseph Pulitzer’s health problems are mentioned three separate times, twice in much more detail than is necessary to advance the story. I also got distracted by expressions like “this would have reminded her of that.” Unless the woman noted it in her notes or reports, there is no way of knowing for sure. I didn’t need this blurred line of fact and fiction. But that is personal preference and might not bother other readers.

It is a credit to the author that even though the outcome of the race is known right from the start of this book, I still read as quickly as I could to find out who would get back to Manhattan first. Overall, this book was a fascinating look at two very different women and a trip that would change both of them for the rest of their lives.

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4 comments

  1. […] What non-fiction book have you recommended the most? The three books I’ve recommended most are actually ones I’ve read in 2013: Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, and Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World by Matthew Goodman (my review). […]

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