Nellie Bly is in some respects a household name, yet the passage of time has erased many of her accomplishments from popular memory. One of the first well-known female journalists, she wrote for Joseph Pulitzer’s acclaimed paper The World, traveled around the world in less than eighty days, married a millionaire, and pursued a celebrated career at a time when the idea of women with professions was still new.
But her first journalistic assignment—the one that landed her a job with The World when she was still Elizabeth Cochrane, a twenty-something from Pittsburgh trying to make her living in the big city—was quite different. As Kate Braithwaite
details in The Girl Puzzle
(Crooked Cat Books, 2019), at Pulitzer’s suggestion, Elizabeth had herself declared insane and sent off to Blackwell’s Island, the location of one of New York’s most notorious lunatic asylums, with the intention of reporting on life from the inside.
Braithwaite’s dramatic and compelling novel opens with the middle-aged Nellie Bly revealing her story to a young typist. We see Elizabeth bursting into Pulitzer’s office, demanding a job and receiving her assignment to infiltrate Blackwell’s Island. There, shut in with no guarantee of release, she uncovers conditions at times medieval, at times punitive, at times simply alarming. Her own forthright character and instinct to confront injustice act against her, confirming the nurses’ and doctors’ views that she is not mentally stable. One of the doctors demonstrates a certain kindness toward the afflicted, but most of his colleagues cannot manage even that.
Some of Elizabeth’s fellow patients are—or become—unbalanced, but others have been sent to the asylum because they are poor, foreign, short-tempered, demanding, or simply inconvenient for their families or for society. As days turn to weeks, and no one arrives from The World, Elizabeth has to face the possibility that she may never leave the asylum.
Of course, we know she does. But it’s to the credit of this well-written, meticulously researched, and beautifully realized novel that we still remain on the edge of our seats, desperate to learn what will happen next.
C. P. Lesley is the author of nine novels, including
Legends of the Five Directions (
The Golden Lynx, The Winged Horse, The Swan Princess, The Vermilion Bird, and
The Shattered Drum), a historical fiction series set during the childhood of Ivan the Terrible, and
Song of the Siren, published in 2019. Find out more about her at http://www.cplesley.com.