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Bold Spirit: Helga Estby's Forgotten Walk…

Bold Spirit: Helga Estby's Forgotten Walk Across Victorian America (original 2003; edition 2005)

by Linda Lawrence Hunt

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3201834,663 (3.53)13
Title:Bold Spirit: Helga Estby's Forgotten Walk Across Victorian America
Authors:Linda Lawrence Hunt
Info:Anchor (2005), Paperback, 307 pages
Collections:Your library, Personal, ebook, Read but unowned
Tags:history, non-fiction, women's history, fashion history, biography, Victorian, travel, Pacific Northwest, feminism

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Bold Spirit: Helga Estby's Forgotten Walk Across Victorian America by Linda Lawrence Hunt (2003)

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The following rant contains spoilers later on so read at your own peril...

This author really really wanted to write a book. I get so irritated when an author takes one little historical nugget with almost ZERO back story and decides she's going to write a WHOLE book around it. What we get is tons of "life stuff"---most of which is either speculation or unapplicable. At page 66, I stopped to write this first rant. At that point, I was still reading about her garden flowers. If you're going to write a life story, call it a biography and label it accordingly. So far, there's been nothing about "Helga Estby's Forgotten Walk Across Victorian America". In fact, we don't actually get to that until page 83. Ugh.

I'm also getting irritated by the assumptions this author is making because she so desperately WANTS Estby to have been a feminist from the very beginning. While she seems to have drummed up some evidence (mostly hearsay from a probable feminist relative) of Helga's views later on, I don't think there's a good case for it in her early years. What better explains her early actions is the fact that she was the only English speaking person in the family for a long time and was, therefore, the only one who could communicate with most of the people around them. She wasn't "taking authority" because she wanted to step out from her husband's protection, she was being the voice of the family to a community that didn't speak their language. Her lifestyle before her walk definitely doesn't match what the real feminists were pushing at that time.

The author liked to make a lot of claims about Helga's political leanings, as well. There were a lot of political rabbit trails to fill space in the book and lots of repetition throughout. Very frustrating. I also thought that if the author was going to include so many randomly researched details she could have enlightened us on things that actually pertained to the journey. For instance, I would have loved to have learned about how they transported water over distances between towns---or did they always drink from streams? What kinds of foods would they have packed along that would sustain them, yet leave their packs less than the eight pounds she mentioned? How would they have dealt with their "time of the month", etc? You know...basics that are a little more relevant than the much repeated info.

I did enjoy reading (briefly) about her time in Walla Walla, Pendleton, and Baker City in Eastern Washington and Oregon, since that's where I'm from.

At first, I could sympathize with her reasons for making the journey. I did my best to be on her side and see it as an act of desperation. However, once I finished the book, my mind had changed. I completely sympathize with her children and the distance they put in between themselves and their mother. In the long run, what good was accomplished here? So much bad had come out of it. To have done all this with no one to guarantee that this was even a legit deal? I guess I didn't realize until the end that there was no one holding the donor accountable. Funny how that little detail was left out until the end. But hey, if it would have been made clearer earlier then we wouldn't really have a story, now would we? I think Estby was extremely stupid and irresponsible if this all took place the way the author makes it appear. What was her husband's take on all this? Why did he let her go? I definitely wouldn't call her courageous. Desperate maybe, but I see no honor in any of this.

Now that I've completely annihilated this book, I'm curious what future readers think of it. ( )
  lostinavalonOR | Oct 25, 2014 |
Not the genre I usually read, but I really enjoyed this book.
( )
  sueZqueZ | May 20, 2013 |
An amazing unexpected true story.
Read it aloud with Winston and we marveled at so much of the facts.
The "Walk" was an incredible undertaking and the fact that her family disposed of most of the correspondence was just unbelievably disappointing.
How much more of a story it was and we could have learned about, if they hadn't been so ashamed to destroy "the evidence".
It's a recommend.
Read in 2010. ( )
  CasaBooks | Apr 28, 2013 |
This kind of read like a term paper, which was strange. If it had better narrative flow it would have been a much faster and more interesting read. The story itself is interesting and I was glad to have the background about Helga Estby and her family; without it the actual walk across America would have been even more dry than it was. Not sure how the adventurous part ended up being so slow and the family life coverage was so interesting; perhaps the author was just more interested in that aspect of social history. The ultimate end of the Estby story is sad. I'll never understand why people burn papers and diaries after their relatives die. What a waste. ( )
  Krumbs | Mar 31, 2013 |
Bold Spirit tells the fascinating story of Helga Estby, a Norwegian immigrant living in eastern Washington. Her family was beset by hard times, and she felt that she needed to take extreme measures to save the farm and keep her family from poverty. Someone offered her $10,000 if she would walk from Washington to New York City, wearing a radical short skirt ("short" meaning 5-8 inches off the ground). This was an era when doctors thought that women were weak and frail and not capable of walking even short distances. It was also an era when women didn't do things on their own, so Helga was criticized for leaving her husband and children behind.

What makes this story even more fascinating is that it was almost lost. The family was unhappy about Helga's extraordinary journey, and so they did everything they could to eradicate it from the family history. Helga could have gone down in history as one of the most important feminist figures of her era, but her family suppressed the story and its memory, and if not for a great-grandson's essay, which happened to land on an interested historian's desk, this story would have been totally lost. Hunt didn't have any first-hand accounts of the story - she had to recreate the journey based on newspaper accounts written as Helga traveled.

This is exactly what I think a history book for a popular audience should do: it focuses on an interesting small story (Helga and Clara's trans-continental walk), but uses that story as a springing-board to tell a bigger story about regional, national, and social history (the women's movement, the Bryan vs. McKinley presidential race, economic issues, etc.). Then, Hunt wraps the book up with some musings about the nature of history and about family history in general. The book even has a call to action to readers to make sure that their families' stories are not lost. All of this is told in an interesting, well-written style, and not over-dramatized. There are brief footnotes to back up quotes and other evidence.

My only criticism, from a historian's point of view, is that Hunt by necessity has to do a lot of conjecture about what Helga thought and felt, and although she sometimes makes it clear when she is conjecturing, I think she could provide a little more clarity about just how little we actually know about Helga and what was going on in her head. Hunt creates a strong personality for Helga, and although I'm sure this personality came from the records Hunt read, I wish she had been a bit more clear about how she came to her conclusions about what Helga was thinking. ( )
1 vote Gwendydd | Nov 19, 2012 |
Showing 1-5 of 18 (next | show all)
Bold Spirit is an amazing book about a young pioneer woman (Helga Estby) and her daughter who crossed America by foot in 1896. This journey is amazing on a variety of levels. First, the modern day reader becomes immersed in the struggles that were the everyday life of American pioneers--and this offers us a lesson on the trials lived by many of our ancestors so that we, their descendants, live a life of of greater choice and ease (in comparison).
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To Thelma Portch and Dorothy, Darrell, Darillyn and Doug Bahr, who became keepers of this family story and to Evelyn Christensen another ordinary woman who lives an extraordinary life.
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Helga Estby, a thrity-six-year-old Norwegian immigrant, woke early on a mid-June morning in 1896 and slipped on her full-length gray Victorian skirt, simple wool jacket, and new leather shoes.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0893012629, Hardcover)

Helga Estby and her daughter Clara left Spokane, Washington, in May 1896 to walk to New York City on a $10,000 wager. The money was needed to prevent foreclosure of their mortgage, hopefully saving the family homestead.

Helga was a Norwegian immigrant who married young, bore nine children, and endured fruitless years on the harsh Minnesota prairie before moving West. She and her husband Ole settled near the little Washington farm town of Rockford, only to be wiped out by the nationwide depression of 1893.

Lured by an offer from a mysterious sponsor, Helga was promised funds if she and her daughter walked unaided and unfinanced all the way to New York City. The women "tramped" the railroad lines through Boise, Salt Lake City, Denver, and Omaha before reaching roads and "civilization" in the Midwest. They walked on through Chicago, Pennsylvania, and finally reached New York. On the arduous journey they faced extreme cold and heat, hunger and exposure, and even shot a man in the leg in self-defense. They met with mayors, governors, and other notables, such as, President-elect McKinley on his porch in Ohio.

On Christmas Eve, 1896, the New York World reported their arrival in New York City. What followed was an American tragedy.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:57:58 -0400)

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In 1896, a Norwegian immigrant and mother of eight named Helga Estby was behind on taxes and the mortgage when she learned that a mysterious sponsor would pay $10,000 to a woman who walked across America. Hoping to save her family's farm, Helga and her teenaged daughter Clara, armed with little more than a compass, red-pepper spray, a revolver, and Clara's curling iron, set out on foot from Eastern Washington. Their route would pass through 14 states, but they were not allowed to carry more than five dollars each. As they visited Indian reservations, Western boomtowns, remote ranches and local civic leaders, they confronted snowstorms, hunger, thieves and mountain lions. Their journey to New York challenged contemporary notions of femininity and captured the public imagination--but their trip had such devastating consequences that their achievement was blanketed in silence for nearly a century.--From publisher description.… (more)

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