6/19/2014

Book Look - Nellie Bly & Elizabeth Bisland's History Making Race Around the World, by Matthew Goodman


 
I love books about American history, women, and exploration, so this should have been right up my alley.  To some extent, the books delivers what it promises.  I now know all about the circumstances that led up to Nellie Bly's legendary quest to break the record Jules Verne established in "80 Days Around the World", I have a deeper understanding of the state of U.S. journalism in the 1880s, and I possess more information than I'll ever need to know about 1880s transportation.  On the other hand, here's what the book doesn't deliver:

* A description of the world in 1889. Despite apparently ample time spent relaxing on trains and deck chairs, neither Nellie Bly nor Elizabeth Bisland seems to have invested much effort reporting on what they observed as they travelled around the world.  What an opportunity wasted!  If this is one reason you’re considering reading the book, probably not worth the effort.

* A deeper admiration for "female womanhood". Though the author claims this was one of the outcomes of the adventure, I can't say I was terribly impressed by either women. Their arrangements were made solely by men, and when last-minute changes had to be made, often it was men who saw to this as well. In short, pretty much all our intrepid "globe-girdlers" had to do was show up at the right stations at the right times. Not exactly a bold statement of female intelligence or resourcefulness.

* A deeper understanding of what made Nellie Bly "tick". The author seems content to take her at her word, but I found this highly unsatisfying as Nellie Bly was above all a storyteller, not above tailoring the details of her story to suit her audience; therefore, we really can't trust what she says about herself or her motives. Would have loved insight into the extent to which her legitimate boldness stemmed from journalistic zeal, a risk-taking nature, a determination to defy stereotype, and/or simple necessity – she was the family’s sole breadwinner, after all.

It would appear that this is one of those instances where the myth really does trump reality, a fact that Matthew Goodman cannot entirely overcome despite his narrative zeal. Indeed, maybe a little LESS narrative zeal might have been more appropriate.  Feel like the author spent way too much time speculating what the women were "probably" feeling at each step along the way, which irked me because his speculations appeared to be based on guesswork rather than any actual data and because his “speculations” often felt stale and stereotypical.

Ironically, I now find myself both overwhelmed with detail about the journey itself, but craving to know more about the true sentiments and sensations of the women who undertook it.

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