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Skagit River Journal

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Bold Spirit by Linda Lawrence Hunt
Helga Estby's walk across the U.S., 1896

(Bold Spirit cover)
Bold Spirit cover

      This is possibly the book that will define both the indomitable spirit of the Victorian-era frontier women — especially those who were immigrants, and their perseverance along with the consequences if they stepped "out of the place" in society. When you read Helga Estby's very personal story in Linda Lawrence Hunt's Bold Spirit, I suspect that you will often do as I did — ruminate on whether you could fill her dozens of pairs of shoes as she walked across America.
      Born in 1860 in the cosmopolitan city of Christiana, Norway, Helga emigrated to Manistee, Michigan, with her mother in 1871 to join her stepfather who had gone ahead to carve out a new life in the logging community. Those who have read the Journal series about the von Pressentins who became a leading family in Birdsview on the upper Skagit river will recall that the nucleus of that family also lived and worked at Manistee at the same time after their own immigration from Germany. Soon after the Estbys arrived, Manistee became embroiled in a raging debate about the "woman's question" and a women's suffrage amendment was on the 1874 ballot, which attracted early suffragettes such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady to speak in the state. Those who have read the Journal series about Frank Wilkeson may also recall that his mother was Catherine Cady, Elizabeth's sister. We suspect that Helga read about this debate as a teenager because we learn that her parents quickly enrolled her in common schools where she became fluent in English.
      Helga became pregnant by an unnamed man when she was 15 and married a local carpenter fifteen years her senior, Ole Estby, who was also a Norwegian immigrant from the same area. Shortly after giving birth to daughter Clara, the first of nine Estby children, she and Ole left by horse and wagon to the barren prairie in Yellow Medicine county near Canby, Minnesota. Fifteen years later, Clara would accompany her mother on the trek across the country. The story of this wife, mother and pioneer homesteader in their remote sod house on the prairie is set up in the first third of Hunt's book. The elements are co-stars as are pests and childhood epidemic diseases, which join with the snow and wildfires to push the Estby parents to the edge of their sanity.
      hose who remember our references to the mother of all blizzards in 1880-81 that nearly shut down the Northwest can just imagine what a challenge it was on the prairie, where the snow was so fierce that children were shut inside for days and Ole had to grasp a rope clothesline to wade through the shoulders-high snow out to feed the animals who managed to live through the onslaught; many animals starved because the first snows came during threshing. The family survived those months of blizzards but after a fire almost wiped out the frame house they finally built on their homestead, Ole went to the bustling new town of Spokane Falls in Washington territory and the family followed in May 1887. In the following nine years in the growing metropolis, Ole suffered a few mishaps in the construction business and Helga established herself as a garden marketer. But after moving away from the temptations and dangers of the city to a farm on the outskirts of town, the nationwide Depression that began in 1893 threatened the family again. In 1896 they feared that the mortgage on their farm would be foreclosed and that is when Helga read of a challenge by a principal of a women's clothing company to any woman who would walk across America while wearing article's of his company's clothing. We share here the liner notes to the book:

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      Desperate. Determined. Unwaveringly confident. In 1896, a Norwegian immigrant named Helga Estby dares to cross 3,500 miles of the American continent to win a $10,000 wager. On foot.
      A mother of eight living children, she attempts to save her family's homestead in eastern Washington after the 1893 depression had ravaged the American economy. Fearing homelessness and family poverty, Helga responds to a wager from a mysterious sponsor, casts off the cultural corsets of Victorian femininity and gambles her family's future by striking out with eldest daughter, Clara, to try to be the first women to travel unescorted across the country, independent, audacious, alert, and armed with a Smith-and-Wesson revolver.
      Leaving with only five dollars each and dressed in full-length skirts, they follow the railroads east as newspapers chronicle their adventures. Using wits, savvy and guns to survive snowstorms, hunger, mountain lions and the occasional thief, they visit Indian reservations, Western boomtowns, governors, mining towns, remote ranchers, politicians, suffragettes and even president-elect William McKinley.
      Accomplishing what was assumed impossible for women, they arrive in New York, heralded by the city's popular newspapers for their astonishing achievement. But deep disappointment, betrayal and heartbreaking news from home cause the remarkable story to become silenced among their family and friends.
      Almost a century later, author Linda Hunt recreates Helga Estby's story in Bold Spirit; her culture and time, her abiding love of American, her resilient faith and her challenge to Victorian constrains as she lived on the transitional edge of a new century of possibilities and of changing beliefs about women. For many modern readers, enduring questions remain about what happens when stories go unspoken among us and what keeps family stories alive. Helga's is a rag-rug history woven from discarded remnants and submerged details, a once-forgotten saga that sheds insight into women's history and demonstrates the tenacious spirit of the human will.

      We do not want to disclose too much, but we will tell you that Linda Lawrence Hunt discovered the kernel of the story one evening in 1984 when she read the seven-page essay that eighth-grader Doug Bahr entered in the Washington State History Day contest about his female ancestor who had walked across the country. Mrs. Hunt is an associate professor of English at Whitworth college in Spokane and she now directs the Krista Foundation for Global Citizenship with her husband, Jim. The book is filled in the last third with extensive footnotes, an exhaustive bibliography and Mrs. Hunt's advice and wishes about telling family stories and preserving them. The importance of the latter was underscored when discovered while researching the book that Helga's own manuscripts and memoirs were burned in a fire barrel by one of her own daughters who was ashamed about the experience. And that leads to our close of the review, from Linda's "Reflection on the Silencing of Family Stories:"
      All families tell stories that are repeated to the next generation; sometimes stories even develop mythic qualities. Folklorists, anthropologists, sociologists and psychologists have long seen the importance of family stories in shaping how we sense ourselves and our place in the world.
      All of us, long after we've left our original families, keep at least some of these stories with us, and they continue to matter, but sometimes in new ways,' claims Elizabeth Stone, author of Black Sheep and Kissing Cousins: How Our Family Stories Shape Us. 'At moments of major life transitions, we may claim certain of our stories, take them over, shape them, reshape them, put our own stamp on them, make them part of us instead of making ourselves part of them. We are always in conversation with them, one way or another.
      Yet personal, family and cultural forces contributed to the almost total silencing of Helga's stunning story. Helga's written memories of her journey, if read to the following generations of her large family, would have offered a rich reservoir of stories for her grandchildren. But the family united in their communal silencing of this chapter in their mother's story. Even Helga's grandchildren who lived in her home had never heard of her achievement. Helga chose not to tell her grandchildren any stories of her adventuresome trip, and when her daughters burned her written manuscript..
      In reality, all kinds of family stories are silenced. Common examples include those surrounding origins of birth, illness and causes of death, such as, adoption, out-of-wedlock births, parentage, abortion, depression, mental illness or suicide. Such silencing is often a combination of unspoken internal and external sanctions. These sometimes happen consciously, such as when persons are trying to protect a family's image in the face of alcoholism, family violence, eating disorders, sexual abuse, or origins of birth and death. However, at times of the silencing of such stories affect those who need to hear them to correctly interpret events in their own lives. For example a sixty-year-old physicist, who believes her brother was irrevocably damaged by their father's treatment of him, observed, 'Some of that damage might have been mitigated if my brother could understand what had happened to my father to make him believe in those ways.' Family stories are silenced when strong pressures converge to deny a real experience.

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Story posted Story posted on July 15, 2005, moved to this domain Oct. 14, 2011
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