Monday, June 13, 2011

Review: The Year We Were Famous

The Year We Were Famous
Carole Estby Dagg
2011; Clarion Books; ISBN 978-0-618-99983-5 (hardcover)

Summary:  Clara Estby probably never heard the Chinese proverb that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.  Such wisdom could be useful to Clara, though.  Her mother, Helga, has made a bet with a New York publisher that could save the family farm.  If Helga and Clara walk the 4600 miles between Spokane and New York City in seven months, they will win ten thousand dollars.  For such a vast sum--thirty-five times the annual wages of a woman worker in 1896--Clara will overcome her shyness and her doubts to join her mother on the journey.  Through flash floods, injuries and the reveal of a family secret, Clara and Helga will persevere.

Based on a true story from Carole Estby Dagg's family, The Year We Were Famous captures turn-of-the-century America and its possibilities for women.  Clara struggles to understand the impulsive, moody nature of her mother, slowly realizing that Helga's fight for suffrage is more for Clara than for Helga.  Suffrage represents the opportunities available to Clara, a smart young woman who will not have to marry in order to survive.  The contrast between these two different women is well-described, as well as the perils of their journey.  Pair The Year We Were Famous with Hattie Big Sky: novels based on ancestors, ancestors who were strong women facing great challenges.

The story of Helga and Clara's journey also inspired a book for adults, called Bold Spirit: Helga Estby's Forgotten Walk Across Victorian America.

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