Writing Women Back Into History

In honor of Women’s History Month, some of my Women Writing the West friends are blogging about—you guessed it—historical women.

Since I’m on a Norwegian theme at the moment (Chloe Ellefson, my protagonist for Old World Murder, is Norwegian-American), I decided to shine a spotlight on a wonderful book: Bold Spirit:  Helga Estby’s Forgotten Walk Across Victorian America, by Linda Lawrence Hunt  (University of Idaho Press:  2003).  This superb book won a WILLA Award in 2004.

Isn’t this a wonderful image?

In 1896, a Norwegian immigrant named Helga Estby dared to attempt crossing 3500 miles of the American continent to win a $10,000 wager.  On foot.

When an unknown sponsor offered the prize to the first woman to walk across the continent,  Helga, who had nine children, saw an opportunity to save her family’s farm.  Helga set out from Spokane with her oldest daughter, 18-year-old Clara.

The sheer scope of their adventure captured my imagination.  Helga flouted Victorian mores about proper behavior.  She also, Hunt wrote, chose to “break the intangible taboo, particularly strong in Norwegian-American communities, against a mother leaving one’s children.”

Helga and Clara left from Spokane and headed east.  They did not carry blankets, boots, or even a change of clothes. They crossed mountains and deserts, experienced weather extremes, encountered rattlesnakes and a robber or two.  They carried almost no money, and had to earn their way forward.

Such a trip would be impressive enough now, if the women were garbed in comfy hiking boots and carrying the latest and lightest freeze-dried snacks available.  Helga’s determination, her curiosity about places and people along the way, and her self-confidence are inspiring in any age.

Her story, however, was almost lost.  Her audacious gamble was silenced within the family, not celebrated.  Helga’s letters from the trip were not saved, her stories were not passed down in oral tradition, and her lengthy first-person account of her experience was destroyed. Hunt pieced Helga and Clara’s story together from secondary accounts.  Although I can’t help but mourn what’s been lost, the book is fascinating.

Hunt calls her project about  Helga Estby’s life “a rag-rug history.  In Scandinavia, resourceful women historically collected the discards and remnants of previously used fabrics from all possible sources.  From these worn cast-offs, often considered of little value to others, they wove together a weft of rags to create incredibly strong and durable artistic rugs.  In contrast, early American women usually made quilts from good-quality remnants intentionally saved and treasured.”

Bold Spirit is a sad reminder of the countless extraordinary women we will never know, because their stories, too, were either forgotten or deliberately discarded.  Above all, however, it is a welcome reminder that some Victorian women were strong and creative and willing to risk all for what they believed in.  I highly recommend it.

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6 Responses to “Writing Women Back Into History”

  1. Meg Says:

    Wow. I need to find a copy of this book. What a brave woman. And what an outrage that the records of her story were not preserved.

  2. Kathleen Ernst Says:

    This was one strong lady (and her daughter was no slouch, either!) I found the book both inspiring and thought-provoking.

  3. Lori Orser Says:

    This sounds like an amazing book — like Meg, I need to find a copy! I can’t believe that her family didn’t keep ANYTHING. Well, maybe I can, considering that my own Norwegian great-grandmother wouldn’t speak about anything that happened in her life before she married an American, my great-grandfather, and built her life as an American. But still — I would have saved my mother’s letters had she attempted such a feat! Wow.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Both of my Dad’s parents moved from Switzerland to the US as adults, and as I understand it, once my father started school, they made a decision to speak only English at home, to help him fit in. Many immigrants must have felt the need to do something similar, whether to help their children assimilate, or to present themselves as good Americans, or for some other reason. But I know, hearing that Helga’s memoir was actually destroyed hurts my heart. Kudos to the author, who had to really dig to put together the book.

  4. Cynthia Becker Says:

    Yes, what a loss that the family did not save her letters and personal account of such an adventure. Thanks for piquing my interest in reading this book.

  5. The Daughter’s Walk « Sites and Stories Blog Says:

    […] year I reviewed a marvelous nonfiction book called Bold Spirit:  Helga Estby’s Forgotten Walk Across […]

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