Review: Book chronicles journalists’ history-making race

Associated PressMarch 9, 2013 

"Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the World" by Matthew Goodman.

  • Nonfiction Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World Matthew Goodman

    Ballantine Books, 480 pages

Americans love a good race. In “Eighty Days,” Matthew Goodman tells the story of two pioneering female journalists who raced each other 28,000 miles around the globe in 1889. One went east. The other went west. For more than two months, readers followed the women as they battled storms, snow and delays until one got back to New York City first.

To boost its circulation, Joseph Pulitzer’s “The World” newspaper dispatched its star investigative journalist, Nellie Bly, off to circumnavigate the globe in 75 days.

When the head of The Cosmopolitan magazine read about Bly’s departure, he saw an opportunity. Less than 24 hours later he had his own reporter, Elizabeth Bisland, on a train headed in the opposite direction.

The racing reporters were strikingly different. Bly was already a star. She had posed as a mental patient to expose the horrific conditions at a women’s asylum, gone undercover to out a man preying on women in Central Park and assumed a different identity to expose a corrupt lobbyist.

Bisland initially told her boss she didn’t want to drop everything for the trip in part because she had guests coming for tea.

Crossing the country by train took Bisland more than four days. Crossing the Atlantic by steamship took Bly a week. Then there was the challenge of communication, with the women relying on telegraph offices to announce their arrivals. (It took awhile for Bly to learn she’s had a rival in her race.)Goodman’s book is more than a retelling of the race. Readers also get a history lesson on topics from time zones to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. The actual reveal of who won the race is somewhat of a letdown in the telling. But maybe we should focus less on the winners and more on watching a great race unfold.

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