Pages

Monday, January 11, 2010

Book Review: Bold Spirit: Helga Estby's Forgotten Walk Across Victorian America

This is my first attempt at writing a book review, so please be gentle with me!


Bold Spirit: Helga Estby's Forgotten Walk Across Victorian America,  by Linda Lawrence Hunt, was a story that begged to be told but was almost lost to history. If not for the daring action taken by a granddaughter-in-law, we may never have known about this courageous woman's journey.

In 1896, things were looking bad for Helga Estby and her husband Ole, both Norwegian immigrants. They had moved from Minnesota's prairies and large Norwegian enclave to Spokane, Washington. They were eager to escape the harsh living conditions in Minnesota:  the Siberian-like winters, the tornadoes that destroyed everything in their paths. The difficulty of making a living in such condtions and the encouragement of brochures about the splendid Northwest convinced them that they should relocate to the state of Washington. 

The brochures, which were published by the new Northern Pacific Railroad, made promises of a better climate, affordable housing, exciting educational opportunities and an already thriving Scandinavian population. That was enough to convince Ole and Helga to take their growing family west.

The brochures didn't lie, but failed to mention that the rapid growth of the region had resulted in an inadequate infrastructure which caused conditions that led to Helga having a life-changing accident on the streets of Spokane. She won an unheard of (women did not sue the government in those days) settlement of $5,000 for her pain and suffering. With the money, she was able to have risky surgery to correct her health problems and they also bought a farm outside the city where they built a comfortable house and Ole found work as a carpenter making a good living. Unfortunately, the financial crash of 1893 intervened. Banks failed, foreclosures on new constructions were common, work came to a standstill (sound familiar?).  Without work, Ole was unable to keep up the mortgage on their home and the bank threatened foreclosure.  This is when Helga's story really began.

Things were getting desperate for the family when Helga received an offer through "the instrumentality of a friend in the East." A wealthy woman in New York offered to pay $10,000 to Helga and her daughter Clara if they would walk without male escort across America. It was proposed as an advertising scheme to introduce a new kind of bicycle skirt that had been introduced at the Chicago World's Fair.

This is a fascinating tale of two women who crossed the continent armed only with a couple of revolvers, a can of homemade "pepper spray" and only a few days' worth of food between them (they were instructed to earn food and shelter along the way). In an age where women were not supposed to have a brain or do anything physical beyond fanning themselves, just the walking itself was a marvel. But the hardships and danger they encountered along the 2,800 miles of their journey made it extremely remarkable. And to make it even harder was the fact that Helga left behind eight other children, one of whom was only two years old, in the care of their father. She encountered prejudice and hatred along the way, especially among the Norwegian community that she left behind. To Norwegians, and to most Americans at that time, motherhood and the all the responsibilities it entailed were sacred. They were considered loose women by many, but were admired by many more.

This is not only a tale of two women, but of all women, as it occured during the early days of the women's suffrage movement. It also encompasses the pivotal election of William McKinley vs. William Jennings Bryan.

Unfortunately, Helga's journey did not have a happy ending, and because most of her family hated her for the consequences of her bold action and the terrible hardships that they faced themselves, they destroyed almost all of Helga's records with which she intended to write a book. Because of her granddaughter-in-law's actions, the author was able to piece together this story with the help of a great-grandaughter.

My son Jaye found this book for me at Goodwill. At first I was a little ho-hum about it, but when I started reading, I couldn't stop. I give it 4 stars out of 5.

42 comments:

Kathleen said...

Wow, I've never heard of this woman before. It's amazing to me the women that did so much by their brave, pioneer spirits! We stand on their shoulders and yet don't give them a thought. Thanks for bringing this to our attention.

Sandy Nawrot said...

First of all Susan, great job on your first book review! You should do it more often! And what a story to review. I guess I can understand your initial lack of enthusiasm, but this is truly an amazing story and obviously well-written. This lady was way ahead of her time!

Char said...

sounds very interesting! great review.

i can't imagine what it took for them to leave on their own like that.

stacybuckeye said...

This sounds amazing! I love when I find hidden gems at used book stores and this certainly sounds like a great find. Great review.

Cindy said...

I love this woman! She must have been very desperate for that money to leave her children behind. Your review is fabulous too. I'm putting this on my list for book club.

I would love to see what a brochure from 1896 looks like.

CottageGirl said...

Fascinating story! Helga was quite a character, wasn't she?
Great book review, Susan! i think you have a new calling!
Maybe your next book review could be one on ... cinnamon rolls!! ;->

Wanda said...

Your review made me want to read the book Susan...I wonder if our library would have it...my daughter works there so I will as...maybe she can track down a copy, if not!

ds said...

Susan, you should review books more often--this is terrific!!
What an incredible woman (okay, two incredible women), and a fascinating story. Beats the pants--er, skirts--of the Letters of Pioneer Women that was popular a while back. The more women's lives change, the more they remain the same. Sigh...
Thank you.

The Bumbles said...

Sounds like a lot of people didn't "walk a mile in her shoes" so to speak in her family. Which I can understand why they would be upset/feel abandoned/ashamed, etc. But still. She was brave, resourceful, and strong. Quite an example to base your first ever book review around! Ladies like her allow ladies like us to do what we do. So thank you very much Helga. And Susan.

Susan said...

Kathleen, I had never heard of her either until reading this! She was an amazing woman, and her daughter was right along beside her for the whole journey.

Susan said...

Thank you, Sandy! Of course you would have to say that after I almost threatened to cry if you weren't nice! ;)

It was amazing that the author was able to pull together such a compelling story when all she really had to work with were archived newspaper interviews that Helga was required to do in each town, or at least a couple in each state. Her descendents didn't know about or wouldn't talk about the story.

Susan said...

Char, I know! Can you imagine taking off into the unknown like that with so little to sustain you? Now we would go to an outfitter's store and load up on all the things that backpackers have available to them. They spent the first part of the trip wearing those long Victorian-style dresses and petticoats and just simple leather ladies' boots! Sheesh!

Susan said...

Thank you, Stacy, my son has a good eye! He's a historian and always goes for obscure history stories. He also found in the same cache a Book Club first-edition of Rosemary's Baby. I read it when it was first published in 1967. Scared the bejeebers out of me...so did the movie!

Susan said...

Cindy, you can't go wrong suggesting this for your book club. The link at the beginning of the post is to the book on Amazon. You also might be able to find it at Alibris.com.

There are a lot of things to discuss in this book. Lots of underlying motives and themes to pick apart. And it's a pretty quick read as well. I hope the other participants agree to do it!

Susan said...

Let's see, CG, should that be a cinnamon roll mystery? Or should it be a midwest travel book? hehe

Uh, I don't know how often this book reviewing thing will happen, so don't start holding your breath! Although, I will say, I was hesitant at first because of my blog friends who are such talented and amazing book reviewers, but once I got it done, it wasn't so scary!

Susan said...

Wanda, if you can't find a copy, they sell it on Amazon (link at top). If that's not an option, I would be willing to send you mine to borrow. After all, you aren't that far away!

Susan said...

ds, you are too kind! Of course, I picked the whole thing apart after reading it! May have used the word bold a couple times too many! But I guess it wasn't too bad for a first effort.

Ah yes, things were so different for women in those days, one of the prevailing themes running through the book. Women really were not encouraged to think and when they dared to have an intelligent thought, the men felt threatened by it! Well, most men. I'm sure not all of them were like that. Thank goodness times have changed, but as you said, a lot of things stay the same.

Susan said...

Thank you, Molly! Yes, Helga and other women like her paved the way for modern women to be who we are. Of course it took another almost hundred years, but we enjoy the privileges that these women couldn't even hope to dream about!

I did find myself feeling sympathetic toward her family. They endured terrible hardships while Helga was gone and some of them were probably directly related to her not being there to care for them. She never really got over that knowledge and that helped shape the outcome of this story.

Natashya KitchenPuppies said...

What a bizarre and fascinating story! Thanks for the review.

culdesacchronicles said...

Susan,
This is the first time I've heard about Helga. Of course, I'm certain that there are thousands of stories we've never heard. Frequently the lives of significant women were not documented, and if they were, often large pieces were missing - sometimes years. How wonderful that her story has been memorialized.

You did a great job on this review. Makes me want to know more.
Bella

Susan said...

You're welcome, Natashya! It is both of those things!

Susan said...

Thank you, Bella! It kind of makes me want to find other unsung heroes whose stories I'm not acquainted with. I'm sure there are thousands of them!

Deborah said...

This woman had pluck, and then some! It's a Victorian version of the Amazing Race, but without any of the glam or a safety net. I can't imagine being persuaded to do such a thing, or being desperate enough to do it. What an honour that her great-grandaughter thought this story was so important and saw it published.
You write an EX-cellent book reveiw Susan, and I learned something to boot!

Deborah said...

.....and I don't spell very well.

Ruth said...

Yay! Now we've both done our first book review. You did an outstanding job, I was fascinated and would like to read this. When I hear about women like Helga and her daughter doing extraordinary things ahead of their time I feel such admiration.

I read Vilhelm Moberg's Emigrant books a couple years ago, and they were fantastic, I recommend them highly. Each book marks a different stage of their journey and settlement in Minnesota, all based on real experiences.

I hope you'll keep writing book reviews, Susie!

Oliag said...

...if a book review's object is to get others interested in reading a deserving book then you have accomplished your goal for sure:)

I was just reading a review of a new biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane...and it does amaze me what some women accomplish...makes me want to get out there and do something more challenging with my life...

Susan said...

Deborah, I think "pluck" is an understatement! These women had grit and wills of steel! I can't imagine such an undertaking in today's times, much less back then.

Haha, you didn't misspell, your fingers just got tangled up! Mine do that all the time.

Susan said...

Ruthie, YAY, we're not book review virgins anymore! I really liked doing this one, so I hope I can pull off a few more.

The Emigrant books sound fascinating! Did they base the Liv Ullmann series of movies on them? Or am I thinking of something else?

Thank you for the compliment!

Susan said...

Oliag, thank you...what a nice compliment!

Please tell me the name of the Laura Ingalls Wilder bio...I love her and all the Little House books! I would love to read a new perspective!

I think I'm too rotten spoiled to do anything as challenging as those women had to face every day, much less taking on an incredible challenge such as Helga's feat. I'm a wuss, I admit it.

JackeeG4glamorous said...

I adore those kinds of books! I'll have to search this one out. Have you read "1000 White Women?" Its fiction but it was facinating. Have you read "These is My Words?" Another fictional book about a woman's life in the 1800's in the new territory (I think Texas) Awesome reads.
Girl power.
I've got a stack of books on my bookshelf that is over 30 and growing. My addictive personality keeps buying good reads, but I haven't found the time to read lately!

Ruth said...

Yes, the Liv Ullman film is based on his books. I haven't seen it, have you?

When I picture the pioneers having to build and make every single thing they needed - except what they were lucky enough to buy imported and could afford - it boggles my mind.

Jenny said...

This is a great review and now I will have to order this book. I love this style of writing. Thank you for the good read recommendation! It is appreciated.

Jenny said...

How's the new kitty?

Susan said...

Jackee, no, I haven't read either of those books, but they do sound interesting. You sound like me, I've got a huge stack of books on my desk that I've acquired lately from Goodwill or my son (who got them from his Goodwill). That's not to mention the dozens on the bookshelves that haven't been read yet! I'm trying to remedy that though and slowly work my way through them.

Addictive personality? Yeah, I'm familiar with that concept! :)

Susan said...

Ruthie, actually I've seen the "The New Land" which is the one following "The Emigrants". It tells their story after they've settled in America. It's very harsh, if I remember correctly. I need to watch it again and the first one. Especially after having read this book.

Susan said...

Jenny, I'm glad you enjoyed my first book review effort! I suppose I accomplished my goal if so many here are intrigued by the story. I'm definitely encouraged to try another one soon!

Kitty is doing great! She's now running the place! Who didn't see that coming?!! LOL

willow said...

This looks like a book I would like. Thanks for the recommend, Susan! Great review.

gemma said...

Imagine what women who went before us have had to endure. I hope that Helga was able to find joy amid her struggles.

Susan said...

Thank you, Willow! I hope you get a chance to read it!

Susan said...

gemma, Helga was able to live out her life, but it was never the same after she returned home. The resentment and anger that her family felt toward her sadly changed her in many ways.

Elle Bee said...

You wrote a wonderful review and this book sounds like one I would love to read! I love historical stories.

Susan said...

Thank you, Elle! I hope you get a chance to read it someday!