Synopsis from Goodreads
A vivid historical thriller about a young woman whose quest to free her sister from an infamous insane asylum risks her sanity, her safety and her life. Charlotte Smith’s future is planned to the last detail, and so was her sister’s – until Phoebe became a disruption. When their parents commit Phoebe to a notorious asylum, Charlotte knows there’s more to the story than madness. Shedding her identity to become an anonymous inmate, “Woman Ninety-Nine,” Charlotte uncovers dangerous secrets. Insanity isn’t the only reason her fellow inmates were put away – and those in power will do anything to keep the truth, or Charlotte, from getting out.
A Little Background
The real Nelly Bly is mentioned throughout this book, particularly as an inspiration to Charlotte. Bly was famous for her “stunt journalism” which included going undercover as a patient in order to investigate the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island in New York in 1887. Bly’s initial desire was to find out for herself that “the most helpless of God’s creatures” were in fact being properly cared for in facilities of this type. What Bly discovers is that most of the women in the facility are not insane at all, but instead are just poor, indigent immigrants or women that are no longer wanted by their families for a variety of reasons. And the ones that did have mental illnesses were treated quite cruelly.
Doctors at the time assumed if you showed up on the doorstep of the asylum, for any reason, you were by definition insane. There was no diagnosis, no real examination. Insanity was assumed. Bly spent 10 days in the facility and her descriptions of the treatment of the women was appalling and shocking. She described everything from ice baths, sitting for hours on hard benches, spoiled and limited food, rough treatment, and brutal abuse including choking and beatings. After Bly’s exposé was published a grand jury launched an investigation into the conditions of the asylum; however, the asylum was given prior notice of the investigation and were able to prepare for the visit by officials. But they didn’t get their stories straight amongst themselves and the doctors and nurses not only contradicted Bly’s story, but also each other’s. In the end, some changes were made and more money was provided to improve conditions in the asylum. Examinations to determine real “insanity” were improved to ensure only the seriously ill were admitted instead of just “troublesome women” that families or society wanted to hide away.
Sadly, Bly’s exposé wasn’t successful as a remedy for the treatment of mental illness as a whole. It took many more decades before people with mental illnesses were treated as patients requiring medical care instead of inmates essentially locked up and experimented upon.
The author takes much from Nelly Bly’s experiences and develops it into a well-crafted story in Woman 99. Many descriptions of the treatment of women in the Goldengrove Progressive Home for the Curable Insane (the asylum in the novel) is taken straight from the experiences of Bly and is properly credited by the author in the Author’s Note.
Charlotte was an interesting character. She began as a privileged, protected, and naïve young lady with expectations of marrying well and turned into a courageous, strong woman willing to do anything to save her sister. I’m not sure Charlotte made very wise decisions regarding her plan to have herself committed. Unlike Bly, who had a definite escape from her situation, Charlotte just assumed folks would believe her when she finally revealed she was actually sane. But therein lies the crux of the story – her naïve assumption led her to discover the fact that women didn’t have to be insane to be committed. Some just needed to be poor, inconvenient, or unwanted.
The story is ultimately one of courage, love, and strength. The ending was appropriate and satisfying.
I also particularly appreciated the introduction to Nelly Bly’s experience in the asylum since I’ve since read a lot about her specific observations (as is probably obvious with my history lesson above) since I finished Woman 99.
This is the first book I’ve read by Greer Macallister and I look forward to reading more of her work.
Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher Sourcebooks Landmark for a free electronic ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
Expected publication March 5, 2019 by Sourcebooks Landmark.
My rating – 4 out of 5
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