A historical novel about the 10 days that famed newspaper journalist Nellie Bly posed as a patient in a mental hospital.
The story opens in 1919 as narrator Beatrice Alexander performs menial tasks as Bly’s assistant at the McAlpin Hotel in Manhattan. Now in her 50s, Bly maintains a makeshift office in a suite at the hotel, where she writes articles and arranges adoptions. She gives Beatrice some handwritten notes to type—pages that recount Bly’s undercover stint in a mental institution decades before. As Beatrice works through these notes, third-person narration takes readers 30 years into the past. Desperate for her first break as a journalist, young Bly found work at a newspaper by agreeing to do an exposé on a women’s asylum. After convincing medical professionals that she was mentally unstable, she was taken to Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum for Women, in the East River, where she was instantly subjected to miserable treatment. The conditions at Blackwell’s Island couldn’t have been worse, with its rancid food, “filthy bathwater,” and abusive medical staff. Bly found only one genuinely altruistic doctor there, and his efforts had minimal impact on patient conditions. As Bly waited for her publisher to rescue her from the asylum, she worried that her suffering might cause her to lose her grip on reality. Novelist Braithwaite (The Road to Newgate, 2018, etc.) delivers a well-researched and engrossing tale that focuses on female empowerment. It’s full of intriguing historical details about past medical practices and the abuses that wards of the state endured; it also features many real-life characters, including patients and doctors that Bly met in the asylum. Indeed, the scenes in the so-called “madhouse” are significantly more compelling than those set years later, but the latter-day happenings do serve to show how successful Bly became after her first assignment. Although readers know from the start that Bly escaped Blackwell’s Island, the descriptions of her harrowing experiences remain captivating.
A story of grit and perseverance that will appeal to readers interested in the history of women in journalism.