A few years ago, I watched a movie about Nellie Bly and her famous undercover commitment to a women’s asylum. Up until then, I had never heard of her, but it was a fascinating and eye-opening account. Earlier this year, I was excited to learn of an upcoming book based on her: The Mad Girls of New York is the first in the new Nellie Bly series by Maya Rodale. I was even more excited to get an advanced copy of novel; it’s out now and absolutely worth reading!
Special thanks to the publicists at Penguin Random House and to NetGalley for providing me with an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review!
The Mad Girls of New York opens in 1887. Nellie Bly is in her early 20s but already has six years of experience in journalism, both in her hometown of Pittsburg and in Mexico. But she’s been in New York City for a few months, and despite her credentials and her daily efforts to get a job, no newspaper is willing to take a chance on her. She can’t even get an interview, let alone a job. Finally, Nellie convinces the head of the New York World that they need a stunt reporter, and she’s just the woman for the job. She pitches the idea of getting herself committed to a notorious insane asylum for women so she can expose the truth of what goes on behind its walls. Thus begins her gruesome ten days in a dreary asylum where the conditions and treatment are far worse than Nellie could have imagined.
Inspired by Nellie Bly’s real-life journalism and books, The Mad Girls of New York shines a light on an important historical figure and the work she did to help others. She advocated for women’s rights and healthcare reform, and this novel is both inspiring and a joy to read.
In the first 25% of The Mad Girls of New York, we get a taste of just how hard it was for a woman to get a job in journalism in the 1880s. In spite of her experience, skill, and tenacity, Nellie Bly spends her first few months in New York getting doors closed in her face (or not opened at all). The thought then was that women couldn’t report on serious topics; the first chapter offers many of their misconceptions: Women are too sensitive and emotional. Women of good breeding don’t work in journalism. Women can’t gain access to the crime scenes or other locations where news is happening. And if they do hire women, they can only employ one token woman, and she can only report on ladies’ topics. Truly, I was frustrated on Nellie’s behalf.
But Nellie is persistent and quick-witted. Early on, she steals another man’s interview, and honestly, she shouldn’t feel bad about it. He easily can (and does) get a job elsewhere within 24 hours, whereas this is her first chance in the months since she arrived in the city. But his presence during her bold pitch may come back to bite her.
Before Nellie connives to get herself committed to Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum for Women, she makes some positive connections with a handful of other women journalists. One of them – Marian – will prove important to a subplot later in the books. Moreover, it’s wonderful to see women supporting each other, especially in a time when so few of them could get the jobs they seek.
Finally, Nellie goes through a day-long charade to get herself into the local insane asylum. Though she acts rather unconventionally in her efforts – and they do, indeed, pay off – she later realizes just how easy it is for sane women to end up there, too. Consider Tillie, a woman who has a real physical illness, and instead ends up at Blackwell’s. Consider the woman who grieved too much after her husband died, or an immigrant from Germany whose only transgression is that doesn’t yet speak English.
Be forewarned: The chapters set in Blackwell’s will certainly make you angry and horrified. The conditions are horrendous, from the threadbare clothing the women wear to the rancid food they’re given to the lack of heating in the building. The treatment is even worse: Women are forced to bathe in freezing, dirty water one after the other, with no change of water between patients. They’re forced to sit on painfully hard benches in a room for 12 hours in complete silence and stillness. They’re hit, locked in straight-jackets, or even nearly drowned for the slightest misbehavior. Some patients are bullied by the nurses. The doctors don’t pay any attention to the patients, taking everything they say or do as signs of insanity. In short, it looks like neglect at best and life-endangering torture at worst.
Many of the women there are completely sound of mind, just like Nellie. They may be ill, grieving, or simply “inconvenient,” but they’re not insane. They shouldn’t be in Blackwell’s at all. And even the women who do suffer from mental ailments and need treatment aren’t getting any such care in this horrific place. None of the patients are treated with kindness or dignity. The treatment alone is enough to make anyone lose their minds or worsen any symptoms they may already have.
Though Nellie goes into Blackwell’s optimistic about how she’ll fare, she quickly learns just how harmful this place is, and she’s desperate to get out. Moreover, she’s desperate to help these women so they, too, can be freed, or at least be treated with actual care. But with each passing day, Nellie is less sure that she’ll be able to get out, let alone reveal the atrocities to all of New York.
Between her chapters, we also get chapters that follow two other characters: Nellie’s journalist rival Sam and another woman journalist named Marian. Both of them are working on their own stories (which I won’t discuss due to spoilers) which will eventually come full circle with the greater narrative of the novel.
The Mad Girls of New York is a feminist tale about ambition and women’s career advancement, but also about improving the lives of those who have been rendered powerless. Nellie Bly aims to help women, those who are sick, those who are insane, people who are poor or immigrants or otherwise not accepted for who they are. It’s a tough read at times, but also an inspiring one.
The Mad Girls of New York is an eye-opening yet ultimately empowering novel about lifting up those without power. It exposes maltreatment and some difficult themes, but it also shows how one person can change so much and help so many. I look forward to reading future books in Maya Rodale’s Nellie Bly series.
This novel has also reawakened my curiosity about Nellie Bly and stunt girl reporters more generally. I plan to read her books, starting with Ten Days in a Mad-House, as well as books about women journalists of the time.
Get the Book
You can buy The Mad Girls of New York here – it’s available as a paperback, ebook, and audiobook.
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|The Mad Girls of New York by Maya Rodale|
|Series||Nellie Bly (#1)|
|Number of Pages||336|
|Format I Read||eBook (NetGalley)|
|Original Publication Date||April 26, 2022|
Fearless reporter Nellie Bly will stop at nothing to chase down stories that expose injustices against women—even if it comes at the risk of her own life and freedom—in this exciting novel inspired by the true story of one remarkable woman.
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.
For months, rumors have been swirling about deplorable conditions at Blackwell’s, but no reporter can get in—that is, until Nellie feigns insanity, gets committed and attempts to survive ten days in the madhouse. Inside, she discovers horrors beyond comprehension. It’s an investigation that could make her career—if she can get out to tell it before two rival reporters scoop her story.
From USA Today bestselling author Maya Rodale comes a rollicking historical adventure series about the outrageous intrigues and bold flirtations of the most famous female reporter—and a groundbreaking rebel—of New York City’s Gilded Age.
About the Author
Maya Rodale is the best-selling and award-winning author of funny, feminist fiction including historical romance, YA and historical fiction. A champion of the romance genre and its readers, she is also the author of Dangerous Books For Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels, Explained. Maya has reviewed romance for NPR Books and has appeared in Bustle, Glamour, Shondaland, Buzzfeed, The Huffington Post and PBS. She began reading romance novels in college at her mother’s insistence and has never been allowed to forget it.