By: Angie Haddock
In 1887 New York City, Nellie Bly has ambitions beyond writing for the ladies pages, but all the editors on Newspaper Row think women are too emotional, respectable and delicate to do the job. But then the New York World challenges her to an assignment she’d be mad to accept and mad to refuse: go undercover as a patient at Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum for Women.
While I was reading this one, several friends added it to their “to read” list on Goodreads – so, I think the world is hungry for more great historical fiction based on real life badass women. (I’ll call that the “Marie Benedict effect.”) How exciting!
Nellie Bly had worked as a reporter for a few years already, in Pittsburgh, but she eventually moved to New York City with hopes to work for one of the bigger papers. But just getting in the doors to get an interview proves hard for a woman, because women weren’t considered good choices for reporter jobs.
She’s been in the city for four months, and she’s struggling to pay her rent. She is also very aware that women who are considered “inconvenient” often end up in insane asylums, with no way to prove their sanity. So she needs to land on her feet, soon.
Which is how she comes up with the crazy plan – to act crazy. To see how easy it is to get herself locked up, and to report on the actual conditions and practices inside the asylum, which does not open its doors to reporters. Specifically, she aims to get inside the asylum on Blackwell’s Island, which is rumored to be the most inhumane. She does this “stunt” with the cooperation of the deputy editor of the New York World, who promises to get her out in a week or so.
She does get in, and is there for about 10 days. She meets other women, and of course, most are not really crazy at all – some are heartbroken and/or depressed, sick and in need of medical care their families couldn’t provide, foreign and unable to understand English, or maybe just poor (and therefore a nuisance).
The conditions are deplorable, and they are given no reasons to hope for more. They have to sit on hard benches all day and not talk or move. Nelly reasons that some of them may become insane while there, because they are given no mental or physical stimulation. It’s also freezing cold (she is there in October), and they don’t get enough to eat.
The title – “The Mad Girls of New York” – refers to the women of the asylum. But the story also follows some of Nellie’s acquaintances in the city, as well as her time before and after this assignment. Women trying to support themselves financially, and not just depending on a man to take care of them. And these girls could also be considered “mad” for their time (the 1880’s).
This whole scenario is based on actual events, which Bly wrote her own book about at the time (“Ten Days in a Mad-House“). The author used info from that book, but also based characters on other people and stories from that era.
If you’re a fan of historical fiction, I’d definitely recommend this one. Even though we know Nellie will get out eventually, the stakes still seem high for her comrades in the asylum. And there’s one more fun twist after she gets out, too.
This book comes out today, April 26th. I was able to read an advanced copy through the publisher and Netgalley.