Monday, February 18, 2013

Eighty Days by Matthew Goodman

Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the World

This delightful popular history is subtitled Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World and it is a fascinating account of the lives of two young female reporters in New York at the end of the nineteenth century. The story has much to recommend it: it could be read as a cautionary tale on the fleeting nature of celebrity, or a meditation on the twisting course of a life, or a history of women’s rights. It would be a great addition to the reading lists of teens since I feel sure that many students, both male and female, would be immediately captured with the concept of a race around the world.

While many of us have heard of Nellie Bly, but my guess is few of us could say why. This book explains that a young Pennsylvanian took the pen name Nellie Bly from a popular song of the time, and managed to talk her way into a job as an investigative reporter in Philadelphia first and then New York. She convinced her newspaper, owned by Joseph Pulitzer, into arranging a round-the world trip to beat the record set by the fictional character Phileas Fogg of the wildly bestselling science fiction novel, Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne.

The idea of the race is galvanizing, but Goodman does a good job with the history as well, taking many opportunities to divert the story to highlight ill-remembered people, places, and practices of the time, the expansion of the railroads, the truth of ocean travel, the beauty and strangeness of Japan and China in the late nineteenth century. Nellie Bly became a sensation around the world, but certainly in the United States where news of her progress was charted by her newspaper, and estimates of her expected “time of touchdown” back in New York were gambled upon.

Elizabeth Bisland, Nellie’s competitor for the fastest time, was less promoted than Nellie certainly, but also sought the limelight less. The story of her journey, around the world and in life, is no less instructive and adds immeasurably to the work as a history of the period. The photos included added a great deal to the text, and I am grateful the publisher agreed to print them.

Matthew Goodman found a good story and wrote another. Just as the story riveted readers of the newspaper The World in the 1880s, so the revived story interests us now. I would not be surprised to learn that this book leads budding historians to seek out the original documents that came of this novel adventure. Likewise I would not be surprised to find aspiring writers divining new subjects in the historical record worthy of our interest again.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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