Ages 12 and up
Clarion/Houghton Mifflin Books
Hardcover, 250 pages
ISBN 978 0 618 99983 5
Occasionally a story comes along that is so compelling it demands to be told -- even if it takes over a hundred years to tell it. Such is the story of Norwegian immigrant Helga Estby and her 17-year old daughter Clara who, in May 1896, began walking unescorted from Mica Creek, Washington (near Spokane) to New York City, on a publicity wager that they expected would bring them $10,000 and save their Eastern Washington farm from foreclosure.
The Year We Were Famous, published by Clarion/Houghton Mifflin Books in spring of 2011, was written by debut author Carole Estby Dagg. Helga was her great-grandmother and Clara, her great-aunt.
Written for readers 12 and up, the novel is set in the hard times of the 1890s. In the midst of a severe depression brought on by a national credit shortage beginning in 1893, the U.S. suffered severe unemployment, thousands of businesses went bankrupt, hundreds of banks closed, and railroads failed. By 1896 the Estby family was in danger of losing their farm.
At 35 years of age, Helga Estby had given birth to 10 children, eight of whom were still living. Back injuries temporarily limited husband Ole's ability to do physical labor. A suffragist, Helga believed women were capable of doing anything men could do and thought up a way to raise a large amount of cash to pay off the home mortgage and taxes. Inspired by the travels and writings of journalist Nelly Bly, Helga arranged with a party in New York to walk from Spokane to New York City in seven months time, a distance of nearly 4,000 miles. She agreed to keep a record of her journey that would eventually be the basis for a book; if she made the trip successfully she would receive $10,000 as advance payment toward its publication. Along the way, she would give interviews to the press and support the cause of woman suffrage.
Dagg shows Helga as a highly strong-willed, mercurial person, given to times of depression and elation and imagines how Helga might have convinced husband and family to let her embark on such a dangerous trip -- level-headed Clara, the oldest child of the Estby family, would accompany her. Clara agrees to make the trip to help protect her mother but it grows increasingly clear that she too is drawn to the adventure.
Helga and Clara set out from Mica Creek on May 6, 1896, walking the railroad tracks, which by 1896 connected the U.S. East to West. By contract, they agreed to walk unescorted and not to beg but instead to work for their food and lodging. Traveling light, they carry only a few personal items, paper and pen for writing, a pen knife and a pistol for safety, a letter of introduction from Spokane's mayor, copies of a studio carte de visite portrait of themselves that they will sell for cash along the way and Helga's curling iron. Their presentation calling card read: "H. Estby and Daughter. Pedestrians, Spokane to New York."
The journey provides sufficient drama for several novels as they encounter adventures and hardships: days of rain, snow and ice in the mountains, hot weather in the plains, a life-threatening flood, days without food or water, highwaymen and always aching, tired bodies. Together they wear out 32 pairs of shoes (replaced along the way) and Clara suffers from a badly sprained ankle for a large part of the trip. But many strangers aid them, suffragists are inspired by Helga's talks and they meet Native Americans. They also visit with mayors and governors as well as presidential candidate William McKinley and Mary Bryan, wife of William Jennings Bryan, who was running against McKinley that year. Helga and Clara collected autographs on their letters of introduction.
The trip gave them brief national fame but leaving Ole at home to care for seven children, in the poorest of times, battling an epidemic of diphtheria, did not make Helga and Clara popular to either their family or their neighbors.
Telling the outcome will spoil the story but suffice to say their journals did not get published as they had expected and they agreed never to talk about the trip again and the journals were destroyed. Over the years, bits and pieces of the tale filtered down through the family. Years later, after Ole's death, Helga tried to reconstruct the journals, but after her death, those were burned as well. A few newspaper accounts were rescued from the burn barrel. Eventually what survived was passed on to a family member and it was agreed the story would not be told until the last of Clara's brothers and sisters died. Although Helga died two years before Carole Estby Dagg was born, Carole, at age 6, was able to meet Clara.
The Year We Were Famous is written in Clara's voice. It is the daughter's story and Dagg engagingly develops the growing bond between mother and daughter as they struggle daily to survive. They also find much to love in each other. Young readers will find it inspiring and as a senior adult, I found it difficult to stop reading once I started.
Author Dagg does an outstanding job of bringing the voices of her colorful ancestors to life. Weaving fiction around known facts, she includes a love interest, which importantly adds to the story. Both daughters and mothers are likely to identify with the normal generational clashes that happen in any time period but set as a story of women in the 1890s West, facing a bold and unique challenge, adds important layers. Although Helga and Clara at first seem very different in temperament, they find out how much they share as adventurous women, united by dreams that are as big as the world and yet women who struggled daily with the strong family obligations that pulled at their independent spirits.
By Margaret Riddle, June 3, 2011