Two pioneering female journalists travel like it's 1889 in Matthew Goodman's engaging new book, Eighty Days

If the contestants on The Amazing Race think they have it tough, they ought to read Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World (Ballantine, $28). The new book by Matthew Goodman takes readers on a riveting ride back to 1889 for the original amazing race.

Bly and Bisland were pioneering journalists and something of celebrities as they circled the globe in opposite directions for competing publications: Bly eastbound for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World newspaper, Bisland westbound for The Cosmopolitan magazine. Their goal: not only to beat the other but to best the pace set in Jules Verne’s best-selling novel Around the World in 80 Days.

“Joseph Pulitzer rightly understood that the idea of a ‘spunky’ young woman racing around the world to try to beat this famous fictional mark would do wonders for circulation,” Goodman tells American Way. Indeed, readers submitted more than 927,000 entries for the Nellie Bly Guessing Match, which awarded a first-class European trip for guessing the precise duration of Bly’s trip. (No spoilers here; read the book to learn which woman won and in what time.)

Readers will empathize with the timeless travel woes Bly and Bisland endured. Yet these women also found inspiration in their exotic ports of call, which spanned from Hong Kong and Calais, France, to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Readers will too; Goodman’s 18 months of meticulous research and his compelling narrative nonfiction bring their stories to life in vivid period detail.

For all the fanfare, however, the women’s fame quickly faded, their feat largely forgotten by history. Goodman hopes Eighty Days will remedy that.

“The race was dismissed as little more than a publicity stunt,” he says. “People haven’t really understood it as a window into the culture of the time. It reveals so much in terms of the changing role of women in society and in journalism, the newborn culture of celebrity, the impact of technology, even the changing role of the U.S. in the world. All of these big issues are marvelously revealed through this particular little story.”