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"Madwoman" | Reviewed by Susan Ferguson

Updated: Aug 29, 2022

“Madwoman,” by Louisa Treger, is a historical fiction novel based on the true life story of the first female investigative journalist, Nellie Bly.

The novel begins by relating the backstory of 9-year-old Elizabeth Jane Cochran (Nellie Bly). She grew up in a small Pennsylvania town where her father was a judge and her mother a great storyteller. Her father taught her the importance of gathering information and facts before making decisions or forming opinions.

Nellie had hoped to become a lawyer, but when her father dies at a young age and leaves the family destitute, her plans derail. She quickly learns how harsh life can be, especially for women. This lesson is reinforced when her mother’s second marriage turns abusive. Nellie grows determined to become self-sufficient, to never depend on a man.

Nellie’s career as a journalist begins when she writes a response to an editorial in the local newspaper, the “Dispatch”. She is hired by the paper and writes about the hardships of working women and the deplorable conditions under which they work. This is where she receives her pseudonym. Although her articles are well received and the paper’s circulation reflects that, she is pulled off investigative journalism and put on society page assignments.

Frustrated, Nellie heads to New York City in 1887 hoping to find success in the nation’s publishing center. No one will take her seriously. She convinces Joseph Pulitzer to let her write an article about Blackwell Island, the Women’s Lunatic Asylum. Nellie fakes insanity and is quickly committed to the asylum. She spends 10 dismal days in the asylum where she is exposed to abuse, rancid food, and horrible living conditions.

After 10 days the newspaper, “World” gets her released and she writes a series of articles on the deplorable conditions, physical and mental abuse, hunger and lack of proper testing and diagnosis of the committed women. Her articles changed the world and resulted in reform and prompt changes.

“Madwoman” is a quick read that highlights the accomplishments of a woman who was inspirational and a pioneer for future women journalists.

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