As soon as I got the email from Amy at Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours about What Girls Are Good For by David Blixt, I almost screamed. I have loved and admired Nellie Bly for years. I am almost ashamed I didn’t know this book was coming out before I got the email. I first learned about Nellie Bly in a college course I took called The History of Madness. The professor told us about the woman reporter who went into an insane asylum to report the horrors happening inside. The second time was in a nonfiction course where we talked more about the writing techniques than Nellie herself.
But she has never left my thoughts for long. How could she? She’s best known for writing about mental illness, two things (writing and mental illness) that are very important to me. And this book did not let me down. It was more than I could have ever imagined. Let’s get to the review!
Synopsis (from Goodreads):
Nellie Bly has the story of a lifetime. But will she survive to tell it?
Enraged by an article entitled ‘What Girls Are Good For’, Elizabeth Cochrane pens an angry letter to the Pittsburgh Dispatch, never imagining a Victorian newspaper would hire a woman reporter. Taking the name Nellie Bly, she struggles against the male-dominated industry, reporting stories no one else will – the stories of downtrodden women.
Chased out of Mexico for revealing government corruption, her romantic advances rejected by a married colleague, Bly earns the chance to break into the New York’s Newspaper Row if she can nab a major scoop – life inside a madhouse. Feigning madness, she dupes the court into committing her to the Insane Asylum on Blackwell’s Island.
But matters are far worse than she ever dreamed. Stripped, drugged, beaten, she must endure a week of terror, reliving the darkest days of her childhood, in order to escape and tell the world her story. Only, at the end of the week, no rescue comes, and she fears she may be trapped forever…
Based on the real-life events of Nellie Bly’s life and reporting, What Girls Are Good For is a tale of rage, determination, and triumph – all in the frame of a tiny Pennsylvania spitfire who refused to let the world tell her how to live her life, and changed the world instead.
Elizabeth Cochrane is not what you expect of a 19th-century woman. She is opinionated, has no interested in marrying, and doesn’t really have any problem speaking her mind. This leads her to writing a scathing response to the Pittsburgh Dispatch after one of their columnists, The Quiet Observer, writes an article about what girls are “good for.” And in an amazing turn of events, the paper actually prints her response and eventually, offers her a job.
When she first sends in her response, she signs it “Lonely Orphan Girl,” but she can’t keep writing under that name, so is given the pen name, Nellie Bly. While at first she hates it, she comes to see it as who she really is.
Nellie’s first big break at the newspaper is writing about factory girls. Girls who work long hours doing monotonous work for little pay. She even works for a day at a factory to learn all she can about the experience. To say it causes a stir is a bit of an understatement. The owners of the factories try to stop the stories and Nellie is sent to write about more “feminine” topics.
Her next foray into the journalistic limelight happens when she heads to Mexico to report about like is like there. While at first she plans to go on her own, The Quiet Observer, who she has become friends with, talks her into taking her mother with her. And they have quite the adventure. They see a bullfight (which is horrifying), try the local food (they don’t like it very much), meet many of their fellow travelers on the train to Mexico and when they get there, and Nellie even rejects a potential lover!
But she is there to report and once she learns about the corruption in the Mexican government and attends the funeral of an American whose body is less than whole in his coffin, she finds her topic. How does it turn out? Let’s just say she leaves the country VERY quickly!
But the story that most people associate with Nellie Bly is about insane asylums. It all starts when Nellie is down on her luck trying to find a reporter job in New York. She interviews at every newspaper she can find but they won’t take her seriously. So, she does what Nellie does best. She goes all in and marches her way into the offices of The New York World, run by Joseph Pulitzer and Colonel Cockerill. She gets into see Cockerill and tells him that she will go to Europe and come back to America undercover to see what the immigration process is like.
While he is interested, he has another idea. There have been rumors about the insane asylums on Blackwell Island but with no proof, they can’t print a story. He proposes Nellie get herself committed and then after a week, he’ll get her out and then she can report what she saw. And that’s exactly what she does.
If you know anything about the conditions of insane asylums at this time in history, you know how bad it was. If you don’t, you can probably imagine. The women are abused (trigger warning!), mistreated, almost starved, drugged, and isolated to the point that if you weren’t mentally ill when you went in, you might be after staying there long enough. It was hard to read but not as difficult as I thought because Nellie makes friends while she is there and those relationships and friendships are what keep her sane.
And her anger and rage don’t exactly hurt her either. That is probably my favorite trait of Nellie’s in the book. She never lets anyone take away her anger at the injustices around her. If I was a person who wrote in books, this book would be covered in underlines and highlights. Oh my goodness, some of the things she says and thinks could have come out of my own mouth. One of my favorite lines being, “If anger marked me as a crazy, I was indeed a lunatic.” Let’s just say, I feel like that A LOT.
I had VERY high hopes for this book and they were exceeded! That almost never happens! What Girls Are Good For is everything I could have asked for and more. It is brilliant, sad in places, triumphant in others, and feminist AF. Every time I thought the story might be going into a lull, I would instantly be proven wrong by the next page. Nellie’s compassion and empathy for those who she is trying to help is amazing (there is a whole discussion about compassion/empathy that made me so happy!). Of course, because I’m me, I cried while reading and was not ready for the story to end.
If you have any interest in historical fiction or badass woman or journalism or the history of the treatment of the mentally ill, you NEED to read this book. I have already told at least 5 people about this it lol. I am giving What are Girls Good For 5 out of 5 stars! (as if there was any doubt)
What Girls Are Good For: A Novel of Nellie Bly by David Blixt is out now!
Thank you to David Blixt and Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours for the free copy of the (fantastic) book in exchange for my honest review.