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Book Review: Eighty Days

Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World


Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the World, Matthew Goodman, Ballantine Books, 2013, $28
  • Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the World, Matthew Goodman, Ballantine Books, 2013, $28

Matthew Goodman's Eighty Days is a welcome addition to the pantheon of big books about great adventures, especially since these adventurers wear skirts and one-up a fictional adventure tale with their true transcontinental feats. The book covers a lot of ground but takes its time setting the scene and building dimensional human characters. Peppered with marvelous old photographs of the era—1889—it's entertaining from beginning to end and copiously researched (Goodman includes 33 pages of footnotes, if you have a yen for it).

Nellie Bly, a gutsy and ambitious young reporter, is about to undertake a race around the globe. She aims to beat the 80-day record set by Jules Vernes' fictional traveler, Phileas Fogg: her trip, she proposes, will take only 75 days. Her announcement causes a sensation, stirring the imagination of a world fascinated with breaking records and big machines.

Bly writes for Joseph Pulitzer's newspaper The World. She's a girl from rough coal country, known for daring exposés and a get-the-story-at-all-costs approach. To her surprise, a real-life rival appears: another woman reporter, Elizabeth Bisland. Upper-class and Southern genteel, Bisland is as refined as Bly is scrappy. She may have cut her teeth writing for newspapers, but she's settled into penning feature articles for The Cosmopolitan. The trip isn't Bisland's idea, it's her boss's—he sees in the contest a grand opportunity. Dress fittings and social appointments aside, Bisland has no choice.

Goodman has a way with details. There's a funny bit about Bisland packing: "She made sure to pack lots of hairpins, as they always had a way of playing hide-and-seek with her, and she knew that if this happened in a foreign country it would undermine her mood." The passage aptly conveys her as both real and entirely unprepared for what lies ahead. It also revives a venerable custom: look at Victorian photos of women with their hair swept up, and you realize: hairpins. They were the scrunchies of the era.

The women race around the world in opposite directions, one heading east and one west; by train, steamship, and assorted conveyances. Back home, Team Bly and Team Bisland plot and scheme, trying to gain their gals some time, despite typhoons and stranded ships. Their behind-the-scenes strategizing and bold publicity moves have a distinctly American bent.

Battling throngs on crowded docks and struggling with languages like Urdu, the girls report back. They miss connections, get seasick and cold. But they keep going. Throughout, a vivid picture of the times emerges: quaint rituals of tea against the smoky, dingy backdrops of coal-fueled travel, the enormous crews involved in running ships, trains racing up precipitous inclines, and sharply rendered facts. In Japan, Goodman notes, "a jinrikisha driver's working life, it was said, rarely lasted more than five years."

The aftermath of the dramatic globe-circling has a strangely familiar, modern flavor: True to the nature of sensational contests, the victor is lauded and the loser quickly forgotten. Then both women must get on with less exciting lives. I got the sense that Goodman resolved to be loyal to the true story by leaving absolutely nothing out: the book might have moved a bit faster. But certainly these remarkable women deserve all the pages they can get.

Matthew Goodman will appear 4/7 at 4pm, Oblong Books & Music, Rhinebeck.

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