The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Globe Life

July 29, 2013

Danya Walker: Reporters' race around the world featured in fiction

JOPLIN, Mo. — I see a multitude of intriguing novels cross my path daily during my shifts at the Joplin Public Libray, crying out, "Read me, read me!" Unfortunately, because I have not yet won the Publishers Clearing House Giveaway, I must work for a living, which severely cuts into my reading time.

So I have a large pending list on my library account and a bookcase at home filled with nothing but books I picked up or bought and plan on reading when I get the chance.

"Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History Making Race Around the World" by Matthew Goodman had been in my bookcase at home for a month or two but hadn't made it to the top of the read pile. It wasn't until I accidentally came to work one day with nothing to read and was desperately checking the new fiction shelves for something to tide me over during my lunch break that I decided to start this book.

In the late 1880s, women had just started entering the journalism field, with almost all relegated to covering only the society page. Nellie Bly was an ambitious young woman who had not reinvented herself, after moving to New York City from Pennsylvania, to be constrained by such limitations.

She had first come to fame by going undercover at the notorious Blackwell's Island Insane Asylum to bring attention to the inhumane practices for Joseph Pulitzer's World newspaper. Nellie continued, in a male-dominated field, to write features about social injustices.

In a quest to increase sales, the World sent Bly on a race around the world in 75 days to beat the fictional character in Jules Verne's bestselling novel "Around the World in Eighty Days."

In a shocking move, a female journalist from a rival magazine, Elizabeth Bisland, was sent just hours after Nellie's departure. Bisland traveled in the opposite direction with the goal of beating Nellie's time by three days.

Bisland was the opposite of pull-herself-up-by-her-bootstraps Nellie. Southern born, genteel and aristocratic, she was often referred to as the most beautiful woman in journalism. While Bly traveled with only one small bag and was fiercely patriotic, Bisland traveled with multiple pieces of luggage and had a fondness for the British empire.

Bly was many days into her race before she even knew about her competitor but decided to ignore the challenge, knowing that there was nothing to be done about it.

Both women raced alone, using boats and trains, in a time that considered women weak and the lesser sex, while Phileas Fogg at least had his manservant, Passepartout. Storms, mechanical delays, and various obstacles could easily mean the difference between victory and defeat.

While Bisland broke barriers by her journey, she never wanted to race and hated the publicity it brought. The storyline jumps back and forth between the two contestants, but Bisland remains a secondary character throughout, especially compared to the vibrant Bly.

It was fascinating to read about the American people's reaction to the race, and learn some of the newspapers' tactics at the end of the nineteenth century. Matthew Goodman has done a superb job of bringing Bly to life, showcasing her most famous publicity stunt of all. She is a larger-than-life character, refusing to be held back because of her gender and always facing each new challenge and adventure with pluck and gumption.

Verne's "Around the World in Eighty Days" is one of my personal favorites when it comes to classics, and after reading about Bly's meeting with Verne in France at the onset of her race against time, I succumbed to the urge to reread that book as well.

I finished Goodman's "Eighty Days" only regretting that it had sat so long in my "to be read" bookcase. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys biographical fiction, Verne's classics, or just a good book in general.


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