reviewed by Annette Bukowiec
Goodreads | bestinhistoricalfiction
Madwoman by Louisa Treger weaves a fascinating true story of the world’s first female investigative journalist, Nellie Bly.
Pennsylvania, 1870. Elizabeth Cochran grows up in a nurturing environment. Her father, a judge, likes discussing politics and history. Thus, she is encouraged to form her own opinions and later to gather information for him as she has a knack for asking the right questions. Later, the witness of her mother’s mistreatment by her second husband makes Elizabeth even more determined to be an independent woman.
At twenty, she comes across an editorial – a diatribe against working women. With blood boiling, she writes a piece of her mind, which really gets editorial’s attention. Suddenly, reporting becomes something more achievable rather than becoming a lawyer. Plus, journalism would give her better maneuver to express complicated truths of life. She becomes a bone fide news reporter under a pen name Nellie Bly.
Nellie is a woman of strong will. She recognizes what people truly care about. It’s not reading about rich people; they care about their own lives. It sets her on a path to report about working women. Her reporting also opens her eyes to the reality of many people. It takes her to slums where whole families do everything in one room, deprived of privacy and dignity. Children trained to work, virtually from birth. Her articles quickly become controversial, stirring the pot to a point where she makes a decision to leave Pittsburgh and move to New York – the nation’s publishing capital.
New York turns out to be a much tougher place, where despite the obstacles, she still dreams about working for Joseph Pulitzer at his newspaper – The World. She captures his attention with a dare-devil idea of pretending to be a madwoman and report about the asylum on the Blackwell’s island, known for the highest mortality rate, where proper investigation of conditions is needed. The reality of perishing there herself gives Nellie chills, but this assignment might be her only chance to break through in the male dominated world.
It takes determination and courage to fake an insane act in order to be admitted to Blackwell’s island. Then, the ordeal on the Blackwell’s island switches from determination to survival mode. In the process, revealing deplorable conditions, the mistreatment of patients by staff, the mental abuse that could drive sane person into insanity, hunger and cold causing distress. The rough, inhuman treatment, which is also humiliating is heartbreaking.
Nellie is a well-fleshed out character. We get to know her inside out. What shapes her to be who she is and what gives her fire to tread dangerous waters. She is determined to succeed, and she clearly sees it doing with articles that are personal and emotional, giving intimate glimpses into working class female workers.The atmosphere on the Blackwell’s island is authentically presented, exposing women’s mistreatment, invisible wounds and how some of them were wrongly admitted.
The storytelling of Nellie’s courage and willpower to succeed in what she believes in are realistically presented and keeping a reader on edge with her bravery.
This story of a pioneer woman is superbly and engrossingly presented.
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