Book Review of “What Girls are Good For: A Novel of Nellie Bly” by David Blixt.
Anyone who has studied journalism, or is interested in historical women who were pioneers in their fields, will probably have heard of Nellie Bly, aka Elizabeth Cochrane. Nellie was famous mostly for getting herself admitted to an insane asylum in New York in the late 1880s. Her goal was to find out exactly how the treatment was in these places, and her reports ended up having far-reaching consequences. In this novel, David Blixt gives us some insights into Nellie’s life through a fascinating, biographical, historical fiction account.
The first thing you’ll notice about this book is that it is written in first person, from Nellie Bly’s own perspective. I know what you’re thinking (since I know that most of my readers are women) – a man, writing as the voice of a woman… how does that work? Well, to be absolutely honest, I was wary of this as well, but I was very pleasantly surprised at how natural it felt. While I’d never read anything by Blixt before, I see that he’s well versed in writing about strong women. So, while this seemed adventurous, if not overly ambitious to me, his success here tells me that he’s probably taken on female voices in other of his works. Bringing Nellie’s voice to life in this way does, as a matter of course, make her far more empathetic to Blixt’s readers, and I truly appreciate both the effort and the artistry that Blixt employed here.
In this novel, Blixt takes us just far enough back into Nellie’s earlier life in order to start the story with the situation that led directly to her becoming a newspaper writer; that being, her anonymous letter to the Pittsburgh Dispatch. Of course, pieces of her life before then end up getting filled in along the way, but this is where Blixt begins the action. From there, we follow Nellie with her somewhat roller-coaster ride of a career. The two main parts of that include her being a correspondent for the Dispatch in Mexico, and her move to New York, where reboots her career by going undercover in the asylum for the New York newspaper, The World. The novel ends not long after Nellie’s articles about the asylum made waves both in the city and across the nation.
Now, anyone who has been following my reviews knows that I’ve had some problems with biographical, historical novels, that seem lazy in their focus – sticking to the “famous” parts of these women’s lives. This is particularly annoying when the afterward or authors notes have all sorts of juicy bits that the novel didn’t get to (case in point: “I, Eliza Hamilton” which essentially put me off all the other books about her, since no one seems to want to write about what happened to Eliza after Alexander’s death). So, one might assume that I would be equally frustrated with this book ending at this early point in Nellie’s life. However, in the afterward, Blixt explained that he’s going to write a sequel novel that will include the rest of her career. Sigh! You’re making me wait for it? Oh, for heaven’s sake, sir! Well… okay… because, I must admit that you did give me a lot of what I was expecting, particularly her time in the asylum.
That was one drawback of this book. In addition, I think her time in Mexico could have been edited down some, since I found myself wanting to rush through some of those parts. Another bone I have to pick here with is that several times in this book Blixt has Nellie refer to African-Americans as “black.” This is obviously a type of PC compromise, but I’m afraid that historically speaking, the term they used back in the 19th century would have been Negro, or colored person (remember, even Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used the word Negro in some of his speeches).
But what mostly makes up for these niggles is Blixt’s writing style. First of all, it feels so natural and easy. There’s also one scene that is practically poetic that had me totally wowed by Blixt’s ability to get into Nellie’s head and express all the various emotions of this very unusual woman. Here’s a woman who was well ahead of her time, becoming an investigative journalist at a time when this simply wasn’t a thing, and certainly there were no women doing it back then. That’s why I’m calling her a female journalistic pioneer, and I think that Blixt would agree with me there. I’m afraid that Blixt has me trapped now, and I’ll be anxiously awaiting his sequel to this book. For all this, I’m recommending this novel with a very solid four out of five stars.
Creativia released “What Girls Are Good For: A Novel of Nellie Bly” by David Blixt on November 3, 2018. This book is available (via these affiliate links) from Amazon, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Better World Books (to promote libraries and world literary) and Alibris, as well as from an IndieBound store near you.