Saturday, March 14, 2020

The Girl Puzzle: A Very Humanized Nellie Bly

When the Goodreads group Historical Fictionistas decided to allow authors that are active members of the group to nominate their own novels for the March Book of the Month, it had been some time since they had last allowed author members to do this.  The normal rule of the group is that authors can't nominate their own books.  This is a common rule among Goodreads groups.

 I was delighted when Kate Braithwaite nominated her Nellie Bly novel, The Girl Puzzle.  I quickly seconded the nomination, and it won.  I had already purchased it on Amazon a while back, but hadn't had an opportunity to get to it. It's nice to be able to read more historical fiction with strong woman protagonists during Women's History Month.  This means I can  provide more reviews than usual for Flying High Reviews.


I had actually read a novel focusing on patients at the asylum where journalist Nellie Bly did a ten day undercover investigation pretending to have amnesia in 1887.  That book was A Different Kind of Angel by Paulette Mahurin.  It was the best historical fiction that I read in 2018 and I reviewed it here.

The asylum was located on what was then called Blackwell's Island  which is in New York's East River.  It was re-named Roosevelt Island in 1973.  If you're interested in more information about the island's history, see its Wikipedia article here.

In comparing the two books I've read dealing with this late 19th century asylum, I feel that Mahurin's novel was very different in its orientation toward the patients. The fictional protagonist in A Different Kind of Angel was a refugee who was committed to that institution for not being able to speak English.  She clearly didn't belong there.  She encountered other patients who were also unjustly consigned to the asylum.  This protagonist  brought definitions of "sanity" into question. In The Girl Puzzle, Nellie Bly thought that a couple of patients didn't belong there, but the behavior of one patient and the history of the other caused Nellie to doubt her judgment.  So it was unclear whether any of these women were committed without justification.  It seemed to me that Braithwaite was coming down on the side of  compassionate Dr. Ingram who said it was "a complicated issue".  This positively portrayed asylum staff member commented to Nellie that patients could appear sane when they weren't.

It's important for me to add that all the rest of the asylum staff other than Dr. Ingram were portrayed by Braithwaite as either extremely abusive, or  arrogant and uncaring. In her author's note called "Fact and Fiction in The Girl Puzzle" she reveals that the staff  shown in her novel are all real individuals given their actual names, and that their behavior toward the patients is based on fact.  There was a grand jury investigation of this institution after the Nellie Bly exposé , and this too is in the public record.

Another aspect of The Girl Puzzle that makes it dis-similar to A Different Kind of Angel is that it's dual period.  There is a narrator in Braithwaite's book who was Nellie Bly's secretary toward the end of her life.  This narrative displays the elderly Nellie Bly as having poor judgment.   Nellie Bly's secretary admired her employer for her courage and past achievements, but she acknowledged that this feminist heroine had flaws. In the 1887 narrative, Nellie Bly herself experienced moments of angst in which she wondered if she had taken too great a risk when she accepted her undercover assignment.

 I would consider Braithwaite's approach to her protagonist realistic.  She shows us a Nellie  Bly who is strong when the situation calls for it, but is also very human.  This makes The Girl Puzzle vastly superior to a Nellie Bly mystery that I DNFed because she never doubted herself , and kept on repeating the same errors.  Mystery fans call such characters TSTL (Too Stupid To Live).  That's why I recommend this novel by Braithwaite to readers who want believable female protagonists.


No comments:

Post a Comment