As a writer and scholar interested in cultural and social history, I am constantly struck by how much presumptions about what women can do have changed—and how much they haven’t, despite two waves of feminism, a suffrage movement, and a large and ongoing influx of women into colleges and boardrooms.
This paradox is nowhere more evident than in Kate Braithwaite’s new novel, The Girl Puzzle—the subject of my latest interview on the New Books Network. The heroine—real-life journalist Nellie Bly—fights for everything that comes her way, arguing against the position that women can’t be reporters because they are too weak, too emotional, too dependent, too … (fill in the blank).
To prove her point, Nellie throws herself into a dangerous assignment, only to discover that she may not have the support she needs to get out the other side. And while there, she learns that the women confined with her may suffer from nothing worse than an inability to speak English or their ability to annoy their male relatives. But when Nellie does at last obtain her release, her blistering exposé sparks permanent changes in New York’s insane asylums.
As Braithwaite notes during the interview, twenty years after Bly’s stint as a mental patient, she wondered whether the United States would ever have a woman president. More than a century later, here we are, still wondering. Kind of says it all, doesn’t it?
As ever, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.
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 can’t 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.