Monday, July 19, 2004

And now for a book review:

I finally finished reading that biography of Nellie Bly I mentioned in an earlier post. I've had it for years and finally read it cover to cover. Before I say anything else, I should tell you that the author, Brooke Kroeger, is someone I know personally. So, while I was reading the book, I wasn't just thinking about Nellie Bly; I was thinking about Brooke doing all this research about Nellie Bly.

Regarding the book, there is good news and bad news and good news.

The good news is that Nellie Bly was a fascinating person. Despite being a woman and having very little education and almost no writing skills, she became a famous reporter in the late 1800's through pure perseverance. This was one plucky lady. She went around the world (with no chaperone! gasp!) in 72 days. She had herself committed to an insane asylum in order to report on conditions there. She learned to train elephants, dance ballet, and fence. She went to Mexico to become a foreign correspondent. She married a much-older man and became a successful businesswoman and patent-holder. She lost all her money when some of her employees embezzled funds from her company. She reported from Austria during World War I. And above all, everything she did sprang from a sense of wanting to do what's right and help the underdog. (Except when it was from a sense of female vanity -- her articles are replete with references to herself and the compliments others gave her. It's very amusing.) Before she died she got involved in helping to place unwanted babies with adoptive parents. Kroeger even tracked down one of those children, now an old lady, to see what she remembered of Bly. It's a fascinating life and therefore a fascinating story.

The bad news is that, in the middle of the book in particular, the telling of the story gets a little dry. I've read Brooke's other work, which is consistently well-written (her book on Passing is riveting) and I think the reason that the book gets dragged down sometimes in minutae is that Brooke didn't have anything else to go on. No one had ever written a proper biography of Bly before, and Bly had been dead a long time. Other than the one orphan-girl whom Brooke found, the only sources of information for this biography were Bly's articles, some surviving letters, court documents, and things like the birth and death certificates of Bly's family members and records of sales of property and things like that. So one can't really know how Bly felt about things, other than to speculate. As a proper journalist, Brooke does not speculate about things.

The good news is that Brooke did her research so thoroughly that no one can argue that her book isn't the definitive biography on Bly. We'll never need another. Interestingly, the biography itself is a study in modern journalism. Bly never would have had the patience to create it. Maybe it's because I work in the field; maybe it's because in Journalism school I had to write a "biography" of a landmark building (I chose the Palace Theater), and spent hours in the New York City archives at Surrogate Court to find out how much the land on which the building sits was worth during the colonial era, and the name of the farmer who owned it; but I couldn't help but think throughout reading this biography that Brooke gave us a gift in resurrecting Bly to the extent that she did. No one else would have spent so much time going blind over a microfiche machine or poring over crumbling newspaper articles in order to find every single story that Bly ever published. And all those birth records and property sales records . . . the hours Brooke spent reading the trade magazine The Journalist just to be able to tell us that the publication, tellingly, hardly ever mentioned Bly, even though Bly was one of the most famous reporters in New York . . . the research about feminism and journalism and America's relationship with Austria during the first World War . . . Kroeger must have spent several weeks in Surrogate Court alone. The idea of it makes my head spin.

In short, I recommend the book. The beginning and the end, when Bly is working as a journalist, are great. Regarding the middle, when Bly is working in business and wrapped up in lawsuits, Brooke did the best she could with what she had; thanks to her incredible level of perfectionism and patience, what she had, in the end, was more than anyone else would have gotten. If you like biographies, or if you are interested in the history of feminism or journalism, read Nellie Bly. If you don't or you're not, skip it and go straight to Passing.

Now, on to Marie Antoinette? Or Sarah Bernhardt? Or shall we try a little fiction in the form of Bridget Jones's Diary?

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