Friday, December 9, 2011
The first two books I read were both novels, published this year. Carole Esty Dagg's book, The Year We Were Famous, told of the wager that set Helga Estby and her daughter Clara on a 3000 mile trek from Spokane to New York City. The Daughter's Walk: A Novel, was written by Jane Kirkpatrick, and also tells the story of the walk, but includes several additional years when Clara left home in pursuit of her own life. Both books deal with the harsh realities these women must have faced along the way and developed the relationship between mother and daughter. They are good reads, but they are fiction. I wanted to meet Helga Estby as a historical character.
Because the records of their trip were stolen in New York, and Helga's memoirs were destroyed, we have no first person account of her life. Ms Hunt became aware of Helga Estby through a middle school student, Doug Bahr, a great-great-grandson of Helga, who wrote about her for the Washington State History Contest. From there, through "years of tenacious sleuthing," she was able to reconstruct this story. In her acknowledgements she lists dozens of people who helped her with research, from librarians of several universities and public libraries, to historical societies of 13 different states, to the National Archives of Norway. It is a tremendously researched book -- the bibliography is 17 pages! -- which provids invaluable information about Helga and Clara as well as giving great insight into the life and times of the turn of the 20th century.
Through the pages of Bold Spirit I met a complex woman, willing to take a stand for what she believed, who cared deeply for her family, so deeply, in fact, that she walked across the United States in hopes of winning a $10,000 wager which would be more than enough to pay off the mortgage. It was a life-threatening trek and many times she and Clara were in perilous situations. But in just over seven months they made it to New York.
As they passed through towns, newspapers would cover their progress. When they got to Salt Lake City they were given new outfits to wear for the rest of the trip -- bicycle skirts, a few inches above the ankle and much less restrictive than Victorian dresses which most women still wore.
At that turn of the 19th century, only four states had granted women the right to vote: Utah, Wyoming, Idaho and Colorado. With Clara's growing passion for women's suffrage, the fact that two women were traveling unaccompanied across the country, and the unconventional clothing they, they were heralded by some and scorned by many, including their own family.
While the women were gone, disaster struck at home. Upon their return, the family refused to allow them to talk about their experiences. Even the memoirs that Helga worked on in secret were discovered and destroyed. Helga's great accomplishment was never celebrated in her family and the story, which is a significant part of American history, would have been lost forever if it weren't for Ms Hunt's extensive research and subsequent book.
I encourage you to read Bold Spirit, even though I have given a spoiler or two! The style of the writing, the many historical and cultural details that are included, and the final chapter, "A Reflection on the Silencing of Family Stories," teach us a lot about the value of story for understanding who we are and how we got here.
My hat is off to Helga Estby, her daughter Clara, and to Linda Lawrence Hunt for saving them from vanishing from the face of American history.