The Mad Girls of New York
Maya Rodale takes on the real-life tale of adventuresome journalist Nellie Bly in The Mad Girls of New York, which brings mystery to Bly’s time at a horrific mental institution. Blending fact with fiction and a typical dash of her usual strong-women-in-triumph panache, Rodale feels as home in the world of mysteries and historical fiction as she does in romance.
Nellie Bly is penniless after being robbed when she arrives in New York, and is unable to return to her Pittsburgh home, where she’s established a journalism career in spite of attitudes toward women reporters of the time (and, sadly, almost any time afterward). Tired of being confined to the cultural reporting beat, she vows to dig into some hard news by any means necessary. Using her keen reporting skills, she overhears a network of female reporters chatting and makes their acquaintanceship. They all work for different outlets, but she hears that The World has an opening, and determines to land a scoop that will make them take her on.
Bly overhears people talking about the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell Island and, hearing about the privatization and horrors which occur there, vows to have herself committed so that she will have information enough to write an article. She is successful, and soon becomes familiar with the incompetence, cruelty and poor conditions associated with the mental health facilities of the era. What she learns will form the basis for Ten Days in the Mad-House, her seminal article series about her stay. But she must trust The World to get her out before Sam Colton, a rival reporter looking for a byline to enable him to support his sister or Marian, who wishes to step away from society stories just like Nellie, scoops her.
The Mad Girls of New York is at its most effective when following Nellie through the horrors of Blackwell Island, where her connections to her fellow inmates are harrowing and touching. As always, Rodale knows how to write about female friendship and does so with aplomb. Nellie herself is bright, resourceful and interesting, her curiosity credible and her courage tempered by her horror and doubt regarding her surroundings. The asylum is suitably grim and terrifying – as it is in Bly’s own article. Rodale has a good handle on the time period – which will be familiar to readers of her Gilded Age romances.
I enjoyed Bly’s fellow inmates – Princess, placed in captivity at her husband’s command, is particularly sympathetic. While Sam is based on a real person, I did feel like he was a tad superfluous to the narrative – and raised my eyebrows at the implication that he and Nellie might someday strike up something of a romance, since it’s well-known who she ends up with, but it’s likely that Rodale wants a rival for Nellie to bump heads with for the race around the world which forms the basis for her next-most-famous article. But that isn’t enough to dissuade me from giving the book a recommendation.
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Lisa Fernandes is a writer, reviewer and recapper who lives somewhere on the East Coast. Formerly employed by Firefox.org and Next Projection, she also currently contributes to Women Write About Comics. Read her blog at http://thatbouviergirl.blogspot.com/, follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/thatbouviergirl or contribute to her Patreon at https://www.patreon.com/MissyvsEvilDead or her Ko-Fi at ko-fi.com/missmelbouvier