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Bold Spirit: Helga Estby's Forgotten Walk Across Victorian America [Paperback]

Linda Lawrence Hunt
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

4 Jan 2005
In 1896, a Norwegian immigrant and mother of eight children 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 win the wager and 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 with equal aplomb.
Their treacherous and inspirational journey to New York challenged contemporary notions of femininity and captured the public imagination. But their trip had such devastating consequences that the Estby women's achievement was blanketed in silence until, nearly a century later, Linda Lawrence Hunt encountered their extraordinary story.

Product details

  • Paperback: 307 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor Books; Reprint edition (4 Jan 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400079934
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400079933
  • Product Dimensions: 20.4 x 13.2 x 1.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 701,299 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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5.0 out of 5 stars A remarkable tale told for the first time... 18 May 2012
In 1896 Helga Estby, a Norwegian immigrant living in Spokane, Washington, and her daughter Clara set out to walk across America. They were attempting to win a wager of $10,000 put up by a wealthy New York sponsor, who was aiming to demonstrate that women were not the weak and feeble creatures that society believed them to be. They were not allowed to beg for rides or lifts, and they had to work for their food and clothing in towns along the way. Helga left behind her husband and seven children in Spokane, in an attempt to win the $10,000 and save their farm from being foreclosed.

This is an extraordinary read, all the more so for having been buried for nearly a century. Helga's family were so angry and resentful at what they felt was her abandonment and her more than year-long absence that they never talked about her remarkable achievement. Her papers were burned by her daughters after her death, and it was only the chance discovery of some newspaper clippings by a daughter-in-law that the story was remembered at all.

There is a lot of speculation in this book - Hunt had to rely largely on newspaper accounts to fill in the story, as nothing Helga herself wrote has survived, and so there is a lot of 'filling in the cracks' in this book. She delves quite deeply at the start into the lives of Norwegian immigrations and the pioneer settlers, a subject which is interesting enough in its own right. Helga went through some truly trying experiences, conceiving a child out of wedlock, being a pioneer wife in a sod house on the prairie, suffering a serious accident, undertaking innovative surgery to restore her health, and finally taking on such an immensely dangerous and risky adventure. She comes across as a truly remarkable woman, courageous, daring, confident, self-sufficient, and it's a crying shame that her story has been silenced until now.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.7 out of 5 stars  124 reviews
40 of 41 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Across Frontier America on Foot 5 May 2005
By takingadayoff - Published on
If only Bold Spirit was twice as long a book! As it is, author Linda Lawrence Hunt had to supplement the skin and bones story with some history of Norwegian immigrants and of women pioneers in general. I've been fascinated with stories of immigrants and pioneers since I was in grade school, and this is an unexpected story of both, with an almost unbelievable twist - Helga Estby and her nineteen-year-old daughter Clara, walk across the United States hoping to win a $10,000 prize in a contest.

The trouble is, the only information that survives about the walk that took place over a hundred years ago, are newpaper accounts written as the Estbys made their way across the country. There are no diaries or memoirs, and there were no family tales passed on to succeeding generations.

Hunt reconstructs the trek with the newspaper articles and with the little information the surviving family members and acquaintances can provide. It is a fascinating story, and a surprisingly controversial one. Many people at the time condemned Helga for abandoning her husband and children in Washington State while she and Clara pursued a thoroughly unladylike adventure. From what we can tell, Helga was not out to prove anything, she was trying desperately to get the money the family needed to keep their home and land. But the strain Helga and Clara's absence caused in an already stressful time of economic depression was too much. Many of the family couldn't forgive Helga, and Clara left home soon afterward and even changed her name. We aren't told if this move and name change were due to fallout from the walk or if there was some other reason.

Bold Spirit is a great story of an immigrant family's struggle to make it in America (before there were any safety nets), of two women's unprecedented walk across an entire continent, and of an historian's search to reconstruct the remarkable events.
28 of 32 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Helga, your story has finally been told. 10 Jun 2003
By Mary J. Schaudt - Published on
Linda Lawrence Hunt has crafted a real gem from her extensive research. Helga and her daughter Clara set out on their trek across America on a dare, from an anonymous sponsor, promising a whopping $10,000 if they could walk the distance in the time alotted and under strict rules. The lure of money was strong, because at the time Helga feared they were about to lose the family farm to forclosure. This little book ought to be required reading for young people, who cannot imagine what life was like for these pioneer women. Hunt takes the reader through Helga and Ole's homesteading years on the Minnesota prairie, living in a sod house, a harsh environment which included fires, tornadoes, winter blizzards and illness.
Lured to Spokane, WA life seemed much better, till the big fire of 1889. After that the big financial panic of 1893 sent life tumbling for just about everyone in the country, especially for Helga and Ole.
That Helga and Clara's feat could not be celebrated, and in fact was never talked about over the years is so sad. They deserved a parade, and instead were not even given train tickets home.
Author Hunt reminds us that silencing of family stories prevents grand children and future generations from knowing interesting and sometimes awsome personal revelations. History books dwell more on very big events and momentous catastrophies. But our own family history gives us a sense of where we came from and who we are.
Eighth grader Doug Bahr knew he had a good story when he wrote an essay in a history writing contest, and I admire Linda Lawrence Hunt for recognizing that it was a story worth presenting to a wide audience. Thank you.
19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This gem of book is a unique treat..... 18 July 2003
By A Customer - Published on
I confess to a penchant for accounts of pioneer history and this amazing biography offers far more than the oft-published times, dates and places.
Bold Spirit-Helga Estby's Forgotten Walk Across Victorian America, is simply riveting. Helga's true story, brimming with struggle, loss, hope, peril and audacious moxie, portrays a complex woman pushing prevalent cultural boundaries, while holding loyally to her values surrounding family ties and religious conviction.
Born in Scandinavia, Helga emigrated to Minnesota as a child. Following her marriage at 16, she, Ole and their growing family eventually homestead south of Spokane, Washington. Within a short time, the depression of 1893 finds them desperate for work and for funds with which to pay their mortgage.
When an anonymous donor offers $10,000 to any woman who will walk across America under stringent constraints, Helga and her 18 year-old daughter Clara accept the dangerous challenge and strike out together for New York City. Defying the era's "suitable" behavior standards for women, and confronting myriad hazardous obstacles, Helga and Clara display a determination to save their home that results in a confusing combination of respect and condemnation from those who follow their journey. Their arrival in New York heralds both an ironic ending and another beginning to this fascinating story.
Utilizing accounts garnered from extensive research and personal interviews, Linda Hunt recounts this absorbing saga with the objective of preserving the truth of Helga's gifts, tragedies and legacy. The story, stilled for many years by members of Helga's family, might have been lost altogether. We are indebted to Professor Hunt for her gift of presenting this glimpse of a truly surprising Victorian woman. Historically intriguing, poignant, engrossing and beautifully illustrated with vintage photographs, Bold Spirit is absolutley recommended for individuals and Book Groups alike.
16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating Story 7 July 2003
By classical-bass - Published on
Linda Hunt weaves a fascinating story from the old newspaper accounts of the extreme challenges and dangers faced by Helga and Clara Estby as they walked across America in a bid to win the money that could save their family farm. Once I started reading, I could hardly put the book down. (I'm an opera singer, and I read this book during my waits between entrances in a run of performances for Mozart's Don Giovanni.)
As I read this book, I expected to learn more about the role and place for women in late nineteenth century American culture, and I expected to learn about the silencing of stories that happens within families. However, I was surprised to find the story so relevant to my own history. I gained a new insight for myself from Ms. Hunt's description of "breaking the central code of a culture"; that a story simply cannot be heard when the actions of the characters in the story go beyond or "break" what is accepted in the prevailing culture.
I highly recommend this book for anyone who is interested in a glimpse of what life was like for independent thinking women at the turn of the last century, and I also recommend it for anyone who cherishes family stories.
13 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Silencing of Her Story 6 Oct 2004
By Kindle Customer - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
One of the things readers might find interesting about Dr. Linda Hunt's book Bold Spirit: Helga Estby's Forgotten Walk Across Victorian America is her final chapter on the Silencing of History. Just as Helga Esby's amazing achievement was very nearly obliterated by her bitter relatives, how many other accomplishments by others outside the mainstream have been lost?

Dr. Hunt lists several ways "theads" that may silence any story that occurs outside societal norms of the day. These threads are Breaking the Code; Underestimating the Worth (Negation by Neglect); Believing One's Experiences are Incomprehensible to Others; Sealing the Shame; Keeping the Peace and Avoiding the Anger.

Reading this book made me consider how many blanks there are in any family's history ... and in any society's history ... and wonder how many other fantastic achievements have been silenced. Surely the fabric of American history can be woven of threads beyond the ones of war, government, mechanical invention and conquest to include stories like Helga's act of desperation and bravery, undertaken at great personal peril to support a family she loved more than her own life.

Bold Spirit is an inspiring story, as is the story of Dr. Hunt's nearly 20-year effort to research and tell the tale of Helga and Clara Estby and the Estby family. Despite overwhelming obstacles in her own life, Dr. Hunt was unable to abandon Helga and Clara. For seventeen years, she searched for clues to Helga Estby and her forgotten journey, often in the blurry microfiche or dusty pages of 100-year-old newspaper accounts. Dr. Hunt traveled to Norway and throughout the United States as she pieced together scraps of information about Helga, gradually weaving them into what she calls a "rag rug" history -- colorful, strong, one-of-a-kind. Along the way, Dr. Hunt contacted widely dispersed family members who had no idea they were related to Helga nor what Helga had accomplished.

The completion of this book is a significant achievement in its own right, and I am so grateful to Dr. Hunt for sharing what she discovered about Helga. Her dedication to Helga and Clara Estby resurrected a story that needs to be heard, and should never be silenced again.
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