I’ve been doing a ton of reading this summer, and not reviewing many of the books. This is partly because some of them have been cheesy crap, some of them haven’t really been worth saying much about, and some of them have been books I’ve read before.
HOWEVER. There was no skipping a review of this one, because I LOVED IT SO.
This is the non-fiction story of a woman named Helga Estby, a Norwegian immigrant living in Spokane in the 1890s along with her husband and eight children. After a hard life moving around the harsh Midwest with her family, trying to find a safe place to live and farm, Helga and her family had mostly settled into Spokane when the economy collapsed. Owing thousands in taxes and mortgage payments, the Estby’s were about to lose their farm when an intriguing offer fell into their laps.
A mysterious sponsor on the East Coast was, Helga learned, offering to pay $10,000 to any woman who walked all the way across America. This was an era of a lot of change in terms of the way women were viewed in our nation, and the sponsor aimed to accomplish two goals with this idea: one, to get a woman to model a new shorter-style skirt (the hem is just above the ankle, gasp! See picture of Helga and Clara in the skirts here!) and show it off to as many other ladies along the route as possible; and two, to demonstrate to the world that chicks can do shit like walk all the friggin’ way across AMERICA.
Hoping to win the wager and save the farm, Helga takes the gig, enlisting the company and partnership of her eldest daughter, 19 year-old Clara. They armed themselves with a compass, some pepper spray, and a revolver, and set out for parts East.
Their route took them through 14 states and exposed these two ridiculously amazing women to a huge variety of experiences. They visited American Indian reservations, survived terrible snowstorms and heat waves, shot a couple of thieves (atta girl, Helga!), and met an impressive number of famous politicians from the era. In each town, Helga and Clara would head first to the local newspaper office, tell a reporter what they were doing and how it was going, and then set out to find the local mayor or another bigwig and have that person sign a letter they were carrying explaining their task. By the end of the trip, Helga and Clara had obtained the signatures of, among numerous others, William Jennings Bryan and William McKinley.
Their adventure ends in devastating tragedy, in more ways than one, and it was that tragedy that led Helga’s family essentially to shun her for generations after she returned home. When she was in her last years of life, she finally wrote a memoir about the walk — which her children promptly burned the moment she died.
Luckily, newspapers never forget (see why we still need newspapers?), and author Linda Hunt was able to put together most of the story based on dozens of articles streaming across the U.S., as well as general historical information about the era. There’s also a fair amount of speculation involved, as Hunt tries to give us some insight into what Helga’s life might have been like, basing some of those elements on other accounts from similar women of the time. (Incidentally, I come from Norwegian immigrant stock myself, so I can attest to the fact we are totally bad ass.)
This book is absolutely FASCINATING. I cannot recommend it highly enough! More than the story of two incredibly determined women who walked 3000 miles to save their farm, it tells the story of one of the biggest times of transition in the fight for women’s rights. I devoured this book in two days, and will definitely be revisiting it again. READ THIS BOOK. (And watch for a review coming soon of Helga’s grand-niece’s fictionalized account of the story, a YA novel titled The Year We Were Famous. Can’t wait!)