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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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3692229,371 (3.56)15
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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On May 5th 1896 Helga Estby and her daughter, Clara, embark on a cross country journey on foot to raise money for their impoverished family. Everything about this journey is fraught with risk. Consider the facts. First, her home life: Helga has nine children she must leave in the care of her out-of work-husband. As a Norwegian, this is a scandalous decision simply because women do not leave their families for anything. Second, the "scheme": a wealthy yet unknown sponsor with ties to the fashion industry is offering a reward of $10,000 if Helga can walk from Spokane, Washington to New York City in seven months. Helga knows very little about this benefactor and the trip will be extremely dangerous. In addition, although this unknown sponsor wants to prove the physical endurance of women, she has a few rules.

  1. Helga and her daughter may only start out with $5 a piece. All other income must be earned along the way. [They end of selling photographs of themselves and doing odd chores.]

  2. They must visit each state's capital.

  3. They must acquire the signature of prominent politicians

  4. Once arriving in Salt Lake City, must don a "reform costume" otherwise known as a bicycle skirt. This was an effort to display the latest fashion - a dress that was several inches shorter to give women "leg freedom" and was considered quite scandalous.

  5. They could not beg for anything - rides, food, or shelter.

  6. They could not pay for rides.

  7. They had to arrive in New York by early December.

This sets the stage for Hunt's Bold Spirit but what emerges is a story about courage and commitment. Unfortunately, because Helga Estby and her family were so ashamed of her venture when it was all said and done, very little evidence of her walk was properly preserved. Most everything was willfully destroyed. As a result Hunt has to rely on speculation to fill in the gaps. Language like "they were likely", "perhaps", "it is possible", probably", and "they might have" pepper the entire book. ( )
  SeriousGrace | May 10, 2016 |
This biography is exactly the problem with women's history -- it is hidden. And it is hidden very overtly by the family, which makes the entire story very difficult to process. Helga Estby wrote down all her experiences and her daughters burned the papers. How awful for the next generations. This makes Hunt's research very difficult because she had to depend on secondary sources, and this leaves big gaps in the story. Who initiated the 'contest' and the even bigger question is why Helga Estby? Why was this proposed only to her and not open to the general public? We will probably never know the answers if Hunt couldn't ferret them out. Considering what the author had to work with this is an exceptional history of Victorian America and the regional differences that explain the varying degrees of support for women's issues. The book is filled with photographs which are delightful and stunning. Thanks to the second and third generations for saving them.
I could not put this book down and honor her spirit and tenacity. ( )
  book58lover | Mar 26, 2016 |
Helga Estby, a Norwegian immigrant living in Washington in the late 1890s, was mired in debt and her family of nine were in danger of losing their home when a mysterious sponsor offered her $10,000 if she and her daughter could walk across the United States, from their home in Eastern Washington to a New York City newspaper office, to prove that women were capable of surviving the trek. Desperate to earn the prize and save her family’s farm, Estby agrees. She and her eldest daughter set off on the adventure of a lifetime as the rest of the family stays behind. However, things go terribly wrong, and Estby is unable to return home to her other children. As tragedy mounts at home, her children become so resentful that after their mother returns, her great journey is never spoken of again, hushed up for generations. When chance led Linda Lawrence Hunt to hear of Estby’s extraordinary journey, she threw herself into reconstructing the story of Helga and Clara Estby, the first two women to successfully cross the American continent on foot.

Two stories unfold here. The first is the biography of Helga as wife, mother and adventurer, a tale of a brave woman willing to sacrifice much to get the money her family so desperately needs. Following the railroad tracks so that they wouldn’t get lost, Helga and Clara could only carry a few supplies and had to work along the way to pay for food and lodging. As word spread of their attempt, people would buy photographs of the adventurers and leave water by the train tracks to sustain the women. No one thought that they would succeed in their adventure, especially not in the deadline set by the contest’s sponsor. Unfortunately, events spiral out of control and Helga and Clara are left stranded in New York City. It’s heartbreaking that no one is willing to help them get home, not the newspapers who were so keen to publicize their adventure or the sponsor who lured them across the country in the first place.

The second story is the tragedy that so many amazing stories like Helga’s slide into history forgotten because one generation refuses to discuss it. In Helga’s case, the manuscript of her memoirs was destroyed by the children still angry that she abandoned them when she and Clara accepted the challenge. Her grandchildren were only able to reconstruct fragments of the story.

Hunt went to great lengths to reconstruct Helga’s life, but there are still great gaps. Details are scarce about the day-to-day life on the road, and Helga’s true worries and fears can only be guessed at since she and Clara presented mostly cheerful accounts to the newsmen they spoke with. At times, Hunt seems to be projecting her ideas of Helga onto the story, casting her as a proto-feminist when the evidence of such leanings is quite thin. But for the most part, she remains fairly neutral. While clearly sympathetic to Helga’s choices and the rejection she faced when she returned to the Norwegian-American community, the inhabitants of which greatly disapproved her decision to leave her family, Hunt also takes care to show why her children were so justified in their life-long resentment toward their mother and how events shaped their situation.

Hunt’s research was able to unveil more of Helga’s quest, which had been well-publicized in newspapers of the day, but the bare bones reconstruction only leaves the reader wanting more. It may also spark a curiosity about one’s own family tree and the secrets hidden by past generations. Although Helga Estby’s accomplishments were quickly forgotten in her own lifetime, they are still worth remembering today. ( )
  makaiju | Feb 1, 2015 |
Wow! I loved this book. Reading about this woman's struggle and adventure in her trip across America in the Victorian period was eye opening for women's issues and for family issues. That her story wasn't told for so long is a fascinating story. It would be a great book club read, except for the fact that it doesn't seem to be available in large print or audio book. ( )
  EllenH | Jan 29, 2015 |
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 |
Showing 1-5 of 22 (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 Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:22:14 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

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)

(summary from another edition)

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