This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
There is an art to making non-fiction read like a novel. Erik Larsen, author of “The Devil in the White City” and “Isaac’s Storm”, has it. Matthew Goodman doesn’t. “Eighty Days” reads more like a dissertation than ‘an exciting story’. Goodman took the story of Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s race around the world (is it a race if one of them doesn’t know it’s a race until it’s half done?) and crams enough information into the book to make it more like “the world as it was in 1889”.
The book shifts back and forth between Bly and Bisland, but as their journey progresses Goodman sees fit to fill in the background of the story, giving their trip context, which is good and very interesting, but it overwhelms the story of the two women at times.
You learn quite a lot about women in journalism, the newspapers of New York City and their owners and editors; steamship lines and their owners and ships and schedules and crossing times and about railroads not only in America, but in Europe as well, including the outfitting of railroad cars, the service onboard and the history of the rail companies.
You learn how much coal a steamship uses and how much a train uses. You learn about the Chinese laborers who built the railroads in America, the anti-Chinese feelings in America and the enactment of the Chinese Exclusion Act. You learn about Pittsburgh and New Orleans. You meet Joseph Pulitzer in America and Jules Verne in France. And, you experience the pervasive influence of the British Empire throughout the world.
As the book progresses you also learn about the character of the two women.
Since the day I acquired one of the McLoughlin Brothers ‘Round the World with Nellie Bly’ games, Bly has always held a fascination for me. I had never even heard of Elizabeth Bisland yet, when I read “Eighty Days”, I found Bisland to be the one I was cheering for. It was Bisland who seemed to most appreciate the variety that the world showed her. It was she who most appreciated the experience the trip had offered her.
Not leaving any details of the story untold, Goodman also tells us about the lives of these two women after the race is over in 1890 to their deaths in 1922 (Bly) and 1929 (Bisland).
The book is informative, well researched, carefully documented and has numerous photographs. It is an excellent treatment of this amazing event in our history that so few people know about. What this book is not however, is a compelling book that reads like an adventure novel. It is not “Around the World in 80 Days in a Skirt”.