What Girls Are Good For: A Novel of Nellie Bly

Written by David Blixt
Review by Sarah Hendess

Frustrated by the lack of opportunities available to a young woman of her modest standing, Elizabeth Cochrane is outraged when the Pittsburg Dispatch publishes a column asserting that girls are good only for staying in the home. After penning a scathing retort to the newspaper, she suddenly finds herself a Dispatch employee with a pen name: Nellie Bly.

What Girls Are Good For traces Bly’s early career, from her days reporting on factory conditions in Pittsburgh to her stint in Mexico and finally to her breakthrough in New York City. After months of struggling to convince the editors that women can report as well as men, Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World finally gives her an assignment. In September 1887, Nellie Bly goes undercover to expose the horrid conditions of the infamous Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island. She has no trouble getting herself committed, but getting out proves much trickier.

Blixt’s meticulous research shines through from the first page of this novel. Pittsburgh, Mexico City, and New York City come alive through both sensory and historical detail. However, such a great amount of research and detail causes pacing problems. The first half of the novel describing Bly’s early career and adventures in Mexico often drags, forcing Blixt to rush through the more thrilling second half about Bly’s time in the asylum. As a result, the climax of the novel falls flat. This book would have done better as two novels, so the story of Bly’s asylum stay could have been given its full due.

On the whole, however, What Girls Are Good For is a timely feminist novel about a timeless feminist. Readers will come away much educated on the world women navigated in late 19th-century America.