A Feigned Madness
Cynren Books (2020)
Reviewed by Megan Weiss for ReaderViews (03/2021)
Nellie Bly, a.k.a Elizabeth Cochrane, has been vibrantly resurrected in Tonya Mitchell’s “A Feigned Madness.” The book is a fictional retelling of Elizabeth’s endeavor of going undercover as an inmate in order to gain access to the infamous and most-feared Blackwell’s Island asylum. In order to secure a position at New York’s most revered newspaper, the New York World, she is tasked with spending ten days in the asylum. Inside, Elizabeth, parading as Nellie Brown, an amnesiac, witnesses unspeakable horrors and abuse at the hands of the nurses and doctors. What at first was just another assignment becomes a daring crusade to save over 1,500 souls from becoming yet more victims of Blackwell’s dark depths. With help from both the outside, and with the faith of several of her fellow inmates and newfound friends, Elizabeth would prove that not only are women just as suitable for a journalism career as men, but that courage, honor and dreams have the power to change not only one life, but the lives of many, for the better.
“A Feigned Madness” hooked me right from the start. Mitchell captured the voice of Elizabeth Cochrane so tangibly, it felt like I was actually reading Nellie Bly’s own reports. I’ve always been intrigued by the story of Nellie Bly and Blackwell’s Island, and the book delivered more than I ever thought possible. Though categorized as biographical fiction, it is evident that the author spent a lot of time and effort endlessly researching her subject matter, so that the account that emerged was ring as true as possible. I think that this results in a poetic homage to Elizabeth Cochrane herself, as the author took it upon herself to learn as much as possible about her protagonist and immerse herself in Elizabeth’s world. Even the supporting characters, such as George McCain, Colonel Cockerill, and Erasmus Wilson have very obviously been meticulously researched. Not a stone seems to have been left unturned in the author’s efforts to deliver this story.
“A Feigned Madness” comes on the scene in the midst of a United States population that is continually re-evaluating and fighting for women’s rights and equality. While much progress has been made since the late 19th century, there is still a lot of discrimination and implicit bias against what was once deemed the ‘fairer sex.’ Some of this is blatant, and some is unintentional. Regardless, reminding us of the feats of past historical actors such as Elizabeth Cochrane and the famed Nellie Bly helps reinforce the solid truth which is that all people, regardless of gender, age, ethnicity or socioeconomic background, are capable of exhibiting profound strength and courage. It is that strength and courage that will continue to change society for the better, and keep hope alive for future generations that more equal opportunities will become available for more and more people around the world.
“A Feigned Madness” is recommended to any readers with an interest in women’s rights, historical and biographical fiction and history. I would not recommend it for readers younger than 16 or 17, as there are some graphic scenes and details that might be frightening. While I thoroughly enjoyed the book and plan on shouting from the rooftops for friends and family to give it a go, it is not a light read. The heavy weight of the subject matter really presses down on you as you keep going further into the book, which I think only adds to the authenticity of the story, however, this can understandably be hard for some readers to wade through emotionally.
The bottom line is that “A Feigned Madness” is an astounding, invigorating historical tale that will surely leave the reader breathless once the final page is turned.