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The BookBrowse Review

Published May 21, 2014

ISSN: 1930-0018

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

Paperback (11 Mar 2014), 496 pages.
Publisher: Ballantine Books
ISBN-13: 9780345527271
BookBrowse:
Critics:
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On November 14, 1889, Nellie Bly, the crusading young female reporter for Joseph Pulitzer's World newspaper, left New York City by steamship on a quest to break the record for the fastest trip around the world. Also departing from New York that day—and heading in the opposite direction by train - was a young journalist from The Cosmopolitan magazine, Elizabeth Bisland. Each woman was determined to outdo Jules Verne's fictional hero Phileas Fogg and circle the globe in less than eighty days. The dramatic race that ensued would span twenty-eight thousand miles, captivate the nation, and change both competitors' lives forever.

The two women were a study in contrasts. Nellie Bly was a scrappy, hard-driving, ambitious reporter from Pennsylvania coal country who sought out the most sensational news stories, often going undercover to expose social injustice. Genteel and elegant, Elizabeth Bisland had been born into an aristocratic Southern family, preferred novels and poetry to newspapers, and was widely referred to as the most beautiful woman in metropolitan journalism. Both women, though, were talented writers who had carved out successful careers in the hypercompetitive, male-dominated world of big-city newspapers. Eighty Days brings these trailblazing women to life as they race against time and each other, unaided and alone, ever aware that the slightest delay could mean the difference between victory and defeat.

A vivid real-life re-creation of the race and its aftermath, from its frenzied start to the nail-biting dash at its finish, Eighty Days is history with the heart of a great adventure novel. Here's the journey that takes us behind the walls of Jules Verne's Amiens estate, into the back alleys of Hong Kong, onto the grounds of a Ceylon tea plantation, through storm-tossed ocean crossings and mountains blocked by snowdrifts twenty feet deep, and to many more unexpected and exotic locales from London to Yokohama. Along the way, we are treated to fascinating glimpses of everyday life in the late nineteenth century - an era of unprecedented technological advances, newly remade in the image of the steamship, the railroad, and the telegraph. For Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland - two women ahead of their time in every sense of the word—were not only racing around the world. They were also racing through the very heart of the Victorian age.

Chapter 1
A Free American Girl

Nellie bly was born elizabeth jane cochran in western pennsylvania on May 5, 1864, though confusion about her exact age would persist throughout her life—a good deal of that confusion engineered by Bly herself, for she was never quite as young as she claimed to be. When she began her race around the world, in November of 1889, Bly was twenty-five years old, but estimates of her age among the nation's newspapers ranged from twenty to twenty-four; according to her own newspaper, The World, she was "about twenty-three."

The town in which she grew up, Apollo, Pennsylvania, was a small, nondescript sort of place, not much different from countless other mill towns carved out of hemlock and spruce, unassuming enough that even the author of a history of Apollo felt obliged to explain in the book's foreword, "It is not necessary to be a city of the first class to fill the niche in the hearts of the people or the history of the state. Besides it is our town." On its main street stood a general store (where one could buy everything from penny candy to plowshares), a drugstore, a slaughterhouse, a blacksmith shop, and several taverns; the town would not have a bank until 1871. In the winters there was sledding and skating, and when the warmer weather came the children of the town liked to roll barrel hoops down the hill to the canal bridge and to fish the Kiskiminetas River, which had not yet been contaminated by runoff from the coal mines and iron mills being built nearby.

Elizabeth was born to Michael and Mary Jane Cochran, the third of five children and the elder of two daughters. She was known to everyone in town as "Pink"; it was a nickname she came by early on, arising from her mother's predilection to dress her in pink clothing, in sharp contrast to the drab browns and grays worn by the other local children. Pink seems to have been a high-spirited, rather headstrong girl, though much of what is known of her early years comes from her own recollections in publicity stories written after she became famous, at least some of which seem designed mainly to burnish the already developing legend of the intrepid young journalist. One story published in The World, for instance (the headline of which claimed to provide her "authentic biography"), told how she was an insatiable reader as a girl, and how she herself wrote scores of stories, scribbling them in the flyleaves of books and on whatever scraps of paper she could find. Nights she lay awake in bed, her mind aflame with imagined stories of heroes and heroines, fairy tales and romances: "So active was the child's brain and so strongly her faculties eluded sleep that her condition became alarming and she had to be placed under the care of physicians." The World?'s professions of Bly's childhood love for reading and writing, though, are not to be found in other accounts, and in the family history, Chronicles of the Cochrans: Being a Series of Historical Events and Narratives in Which the Members of This Family Have Played a Prominent Part, one of her relatives commented somewhat tartly that among the teachers in Apollo's sole schoolhouse, Pink Cochran "acquired more conspicuous notice for riotous conduct than profound scholarship."

Pink's father, Michael Cochran, had become wealthy as a grist mill proprietor and real estate speculator, and he was prominent enough to have been elected an associate justice of the county, after which he was always known by the honorific "Judge." (The nearby hamlet of Coch- ran's Mills, where Pink lived for her first five years, was named after him.) When Pink was six years old, though, Judge Cochran suddenly fell ill and died, without having left behind a will; according to Pennsylvania law, a wife was not entitled to an inheritance without being specifically named in a husband's will, and by the time his fortune had been parceled out among his heirs (including nine grown children from a previous marriage), Pink's mother, Mary Jane, ended up with little more than the household furniture, a horse and carriage, and a small weekly stipend. Now raising five children on her own, she embarked on an ill-conceived marriage to a man who turned out to be a drunkard and an abuser. After five miserable years Mary Jane took the highly unusual step of filing for divorce; Pink herself testified on her mother's behalf, recounting for the court an awful litany of her stepfather's offenses against her mother. At only fourteen years of age, she had learned all she needed to know about what could befall a woman who was not financially independent.

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from Eighty Days by Matthew Goodman. Copyright © 2013 by Matthew Goodman. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. In the book's prologue Matthew Goodman writes, "Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland were not only racing around the world; they were also racing through the very heart of the Victorian age." What do you think he meant by this? In what way did Bly and Bisland's race illustrate some of the larger social issues of the time?
  2. In what ways were Elizabeth and Nellie similar, and in what ways were they dissimilar? Did they have differing views of themselves as women, as writers, as Americans? How might this have colored their attitudes about the around-the-world race?
  3. Almost every story of the time mentioned the fact that Nellie Bly carried only a single handbag for her trip around the world. How do you think you would pack for such a trip? What would you consider the essentials to bring along?
  4. How might other female journalists of the time have viewed Bly and Bisland's race around the world? Do you think they would have been supportive or critical?
  5. Throughout the book Goodman intersperses the narrative of the race with discussions of historical issues—such as the hardships faced by women journalists, the power of the railroads, and the working conditions of stokers on the steamships. Why do you think he did this? Did you feel that this added to or detracted from the book as a whole?
  6. Did you find yourself rooting for one of the women to win the race? Which of the women would you rather have as a traveling companion? In what ways would you say each of the women changed over the course of the race?
  7. How do you think that Nellie Bly's difficult childhood might have helped to shape some of the choices she made as an adult?
  8. Eighty Days is an example of the genre called "narrative history"—that is to say, a work of history that adopts some of the techniques generally associated with fiction writing. In what ways does this book read like a novel? How was Matthew Goodman able to accomplish this? Did you ever find yourself momentarily forgetting that it was a true story?
  9. Visiting the Tanks of Aden in the moonlight, Elizabeth Bisland has a profound moment in which she comes to understand what the trip has given her: "the vividness of a new world, where one was for the first time, as Tennyson had written, Lord of the senses five, where the light of night and day had a new meaning, where years of indifference could fall away like a dried-up husk and every sense respond with the keenness of faculties newborn." Have you ever had an experience like that while traveling? Which of the places described in the book would you most like to visit?
  10. The very first story that Bly proposed to The World was to sail across the Atlantic in steerage, so that she could report firsthand on the conditions endured by the passengers there. Yet during her around-the-world race, when she had the opportunity, she did not write about steerage passengers. Why do you think this was? Do you think that she had changed as a journalist, and if so, in what ways?
  11. Might Eighty Days be viewed as a kind of cautionary tale about celebrity? How so?
  12. The book's epilogue describes the very different lives led by Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland in the decades after the race. Were you surprised by the way that things turned out for them? Why or why not? How would you answer the question posed about Nellie Bly at the end of the final chapter: "She had outraced Elizabeth Bisland; but now, looking back, it was not entirely clear which of them had won."
  13. The story told in Eighty Days took place more than 120 years ago. An around-the-world trip that once required two and a half months to complete could be accomplished today in a matter of days. Are there other ways in which society has changed far less dramatically since 1889?

 

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Ballantine Books. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

A vivid recreation of a race around the world, Eighty Days tells the story of Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland as they journey - one East and one West - to see who can make it first.

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Eighty Days by Matthew Goodman is a real winner with BookBrowse readers! 19 out of 21 of them gave it 4 or 5 stars. This is how they describe the book:

Part history lesson, part travelogue, part adventure story and totally engrossing (Laurette A). I knew after reading the first page that this book was a keeper. And I was right. Not only is the story fascinating, but the historical facts contained within make one aware of how fortunate we are to be able to travel as we do today (Marylou C). A race to remember, yet long forgotten. Matthew Goodman's Eighty Days provides a close up of the past as he recounts the spellbinding attempts of Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland to break Phileas Fogg's world-circling record set in Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days. The classy pair prove without a doubt they were both winners (William H).

This book is not only about Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland, but about the women they represented – and the changing attitudes toward women which they helped bring about:

In the course of the book, a portrait of the All-American Girl as popularized in the late 19th century emerges, a plucky, attractive, independent spirit, ready to take on new challenges, but always careful to retain a strong aura of femininity (William Y). Women readers should appreciate how far women have come. (Carole A) Matthew Goodman's writing is magic. He transforms historic documents into a fast-paced fascinating story that introduces the reader to Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland during the colorful era of the late 1880s. Both are single women taking on the challenges of New York City. Each is a talented writer and well qualified as a professional journalist. But men dominate the newsrooms. How these women overcome this obstacle unveils their creativity, tenacity, and talent. Nellie Bly is a Yankee ready to make a difference in the world and Elizabeth Bisland is confident in her Southern style. But the ultimate winner today is the reader, who can follow such exotic travels from an easy chair at home (Sarah R).

Most readers were impressed with Matthew Goodman's meticulous attention to detail – although some thought he was perhaps too meticulous:

I enjoyed reading the detailed accounts of America at the end of the 19th century and traveling conditions around the world. Having said that, I think that Goodman got lost in too much detail at times like a student who has done an enormous amount of research and wants to include everything (Virginia B). I was fascinated with the real story of Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Brisland. I especially liked that the author gave us a thorough background of both women's childhoods and early lives leading up to their fame as world travelers. The only detractor to this fine book is that the author sometimes went overboard with his historical minutiae so that the Bly/Brisland story became sidetracked (Viqui G). The subject is very interesting about all the trials a woman journalist had to go through to travel around the world but sometimes it felt just drawn out. I do think this would have an interest to someone wanting to learn more about women breaking through barriers (Angela L).

Ultimately, Matthew Goodman pulls together a riveting story that has the bones of a true and fascinating history and the heart of a great adventure:

The reader not only learns about Nellie Bly and her attempt to exceed the travel time of Jules Verne's Phileas Fogg in Around the World in Eighty Days, but also has the pleasure of visiting the world of the 1890s, meeting Joseph Pulitzer, understanding the plight of Chinese workers in America, traveling in luxury trains and boats, seeing beautiful places before industrial pollution took place, and so much more. Phileas Fogg was fictional and his adventures were fun, but Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland live in a real world the reader has the pleasure of visiting (Barbara H). There's nothing better for me than a book that makes history come alive. This book succeeds. The author has a marvelous ability to take dry facts and turn them into an engrossing story that let me feel like I was in the midst of the world in 1889 (Michael P). Goodman recounts Bly's and Bisland's journeys in alternating chapters, and he does a good job building and maintaining suspense around who ultimately won the race. The book is meticulously researched and offers a fascinating glimpse not only into the lives and personalities of these two women but also into everyday life in the late Victorian era. This is nonfiction that really does read like fiction. (Terri O)

Readers are eager to share the book with others:

I highly recommend Eighty Days for people who love to travel, armchair travelers and for the historical information you learn about the 1890s in America. This book covers one of the most revolutionary and inventive times in history. I think book clubs would like this book. An interesting question to pose would be, "Which of these ladies would you like to travel around the globe with?" (Joan V) Book groups will find much to talk about here: women's roles in the 19th century, changes in travel, the role of the railroad, the role of Britain in 19th century world history, and journalism (Andrea S). Matthew Goodman's very readable Eighty Days is an excellent source for anyone interested in women in America's history, particularly young women of today. These are the brave shoulders that helped pave the way for today's women (Kathleen D). This is a great story of an exciting time in our history. It's a book club natural. Who won? Read the book! (Sharon P)

Reviewed by BookBrowse First Impression Reviewers

Publishers Weekly
Deftly mixing social history into an absorbing travel epic, Goodman conveys the exuberant dynamism of a very unfusty Victorian era obsessed with speed, power, publicity, and the breaking of every barrier.

Library Journal
A delightful trifle - solid history, though not wide ranging - filled with energizing details. History lovers will eat it up.

Kirkus Reviews
A tad overlong, but entertaining and readable throughout.

Author Blurb Amanda Foreman, author of A World on Fire
What a story! What an extraordinary historical adventure!

Author Blurb Karen Abbott, author of American Rose
Vividly imagined and gorgeously detailed, Eighty Days recounts the exhilarating journey of two pioneering women, Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland, as they race around the globe. Matthew Goodman has crafted a fun, fast, page-turning action-adventure that will make you wish you could carry their bags.

Write your own review

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by CarolK
The Race Is On!
Impressed doesn't cover the half of it. Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History- Making Race Around the World is one romp of an adventure. A fan of vicarious thrills, this book gave me more than my money's worth. Who could not love the intrepid spirit of both these women and what they accomplished?

Of course I had heard the name Nellie Bly but truly knew little about her. Born Elizabeth Jane Cochran I was surprised to read what lengths she would go to for a good news story for New York's The World. From buying a baby to expose the slave trade, to feigning insanity to report on the mistreatment of women in Blackwell Island Insane Asylum there was little Bly wouldn't do for an expose. None though would bring her the acclaim and fame of her proposal to beat Jules Vern's 80 day around the world trip. With just a single grip to carry her needs and "dressed in a snugly fitted two-piece garment of dark blue broadcloth trimmed with camel's hair", she sets out on the journey of a life-time. Little did she realize rival magazine, The Cosmopolitan headed by John Brisben Walker, would pit his own candidate, Elizabeth Bisland, against her to circumnavigate the world in less than 80 days. Bly sets out in New York heading across the Atlantic, whereas Bisland's route takes her west across, 8 1/2 hours behind Nellie.

The race was enough to keep my interest but there's so much more for the reader to appreciate. A memoir not only of the women, Bly and Bisland but a period piece of New York and journalism. Nellie Bly's determination and fearless nature help to build a strong foundation for the right for women to hold leadership roles in the workplace.

Riveting narrative non-ficiton.

Rated 4 of 5 of 5 by Darshell S. (Warwick, RI)
Eighty Days
This book is a good read. It is very well researched. The facts and history throughout the book are interesting and engaging. It is not dense or boring at all. The race is thrilling and you feel your self rooting for your fave to win. I would recommend this as a book club selection or just as a good read for yourself. It's history that reads like fiction. A great pick for the upcoming women's history month!

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Sharon P. (Jacksonville, FL)
Eighty Days Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisbane's History-Making Race Around the World - Matthew Goodman
What a terrific read! I expect very few of today's readers had any knowledge of an around - the - world race between two young women working for competing newspapers in late 1800's New York City.
Each competitor is followed with alternating chapters, detailing her incredible journey and the marvels she encountered.
This is a great story of an exciting time in our history. It's a Book Club natural! Who won? Really?..... Read the book!!

Rated 2 of 5 of 5 by Ange
slow read of a fast race
The book is very thorough on details which unfortunately made the book a slow and at sometimes cumbersome read. The subject is very interesting about all the trials a woman journalist had to go through to travel around the world but sometimes it felt just drawn out. I do think this would have an interest to someone wanting to learn more about women breaking through barriers.

Rated 4 of 5 of 5 by Virginia B. (Foster, RI)
Bly and Bisland See the World
Goodman's "Eighty Days" is a thoroughly researched and well written account of two 19th century woman journalists who attempt to beat the fictional character created by Jules Verne who traveled around the world in 80 days. I enjoyed learning about these two plucky women who went against the conventions of the time. Goodman skillfully reveals the personalities of these two women who have very different approaches and reactions to the challenge. In addition, I enjoyed reading the detailed accounts of America at the end of the 19th century and traveling conditions around the world. Having said that, I think that Goodman got lost in too much detail at times like a student who has done an enormous amount of research and wants to include everything. History buffs, women, and arm chair travelers will enjoy this book. "Nothing Daunted" by Dorothy Wickenden is a similar and interesting read.

Rated 4 of 5 of 5 by Diane H. (San Diego, CA)
Around the World
An interesting non-fiction book about an attempt by two women in 1889 to circumnavigate the globe in less than the 80 days it took Jules Verne's fictional character, Phileas Fogg. I love reading about strong, unconventional women and this book delivers. The book is full of interesting facts and fascinating trivia but does become a cumbersome read at times because of it. A great idea to summarize the rest of the women's lives in the epilogue. Overall an enjoyable read.

Rated 3 of 5 of 5 by Patricia T. (Fallbrook, CA)
Eighty Days
One of my favourite genres is non-fiction about women in history who achieved great things at a time when it was difficult for them to do so. I thought this would be a grand adventure in that category. It tells the story of a two directional race, one woman going west and one going east, to beat the fictional Phileas Fogg's Eighty Day journey around the world. But there was no sense of adventure or excitement, it was simply a travelogue, and the only suspense was whether the trains and steamships would arrive and leave on time. The westward journey of Bisland was a more enjoyable read, simply because she had an open mind and travelled with a positive attitude to all the new experiences she went through. Nellie Bly was the opposite, a bit of a snark, the eventual winner - a matter of record, not giving anything away here - but she was not an empathetic person. The book was well researched, with many interesting snippets of history throughout. A mini-bio of Pulitzer was of special interest, and the book gave a good over-view of the newspaper industry at the time.
What I would have really enjoyed is more personal detail about how Nellie Bly managed with no spare clothes. I suppose she didn't think this a worthy subject for her journal.
About page 300 I stopped reading and jumped straight to the Epiloque, one of the best parts, covering the rest of the two women's lives. Although I cannot rave about the book, they were certainly two very worthy subjects.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Carole A. (Denver, CO)
Delightful Days
The few days I read this book were delightful! From beginning to end this book was interesting and enthralling. I have already recommended it to both of my book clubs for inclusion next year as well as to many friends. The research that went into the book and the weaving of the research into the story was, in my opinion, brilliant. The vivid descriptions of travel, people and the character of people was interesting well thought out. If nothing else women readers should appreciate how far women have come! This book is going into my list of favorites. Bravo to Matthew Goodman.

more...

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Jules Verne: A Man Ahead of His Time

February 8, 2013 would have been Jules Verne's 185th birthday. The acclaimed author is considered the father of science fiction and wrote many novels, some of the most well-known being Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Journey to the Center of the Earth, From the Earth to the Moon, and, of course, Around the World in Eighty Days which plays an important part in Matthew Goodman's Eighty Days.

Two years ago, on Verne's birthday, National Geographic featured eight modern inventions that are surprisingly – or maybe not so surprisingly – similar to inventions created by Verne himself.

Check them out!

1964 3-person submarine AlvinElectric Submarines – Captain Nemo, from Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, travels the underwater world in Nautilus, his electric submarine, which bears a striking resemblance to the real Alvin, a 1964 three-person sub. The idea of a vehicle like this running on electricity was a mere magical thought in Verne's time.

Newscasts – Verne wrote an article in 1889 in which he created an alternative to newspapers; he said that the news would, instead, "be spoken to subscribers." The first real newscast didn't happen until 1920.

Solar Sails – This time the "prediction" came from Verne's From the Earth to the Moon. He imagined a light-propelled spacecraft, and now solar sails actually exist.

Lunar Modules – Also in From the Earth to the Moon, which, by the way, was written in 1865, Verne described missiles that could take people to the moon.

Skywriting – In that same 1889 article, which was titled "In the Year 2889", he wrote about what he called "atmospheric advertisements." Very similar to the skywriting that we see today.

Videoconferencing – According to Technovelgy.com Verne's "phonotelephote" is possibly the first reference in fiction to a videophone. This was, again, in his 1889 article.

Taser – Go back to Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and Verne describes a gun that produces a large electric jolt. He wrote this book in 1870 and tasers were invented in 1974…over 100 years later.

Project Mercury spacecraftSplashdown Spacecraft – Finally, in From the Earth to the Moon, Verne envisioned a spacecraft that could land in the ocean and float much like the Project Mercury spacecrafts.

Jules Verne didn't have a background in science or any formal training but he was fascinated by science and he listened to people who knew things about it. He was also a keen observer and, above all else, a brilliant storyteller, which is why his works have endured for so long in so many forms.

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