Linda Lawrence Hunt
Neither should it come as a shock that, as Hunt reports, the book was selected by the book-review magazine Foreword as one of “the top 10 ‘break-out’ books from university presses.” Or even that Book Sense 76 (a coalition of independent bookstores around the country) as one of the top 10 books in the U.S. from university presses.
Books about spirited women, it’s clear, sell well. Especially books as well written as Hunt’s. The quality of Hunt’s writing, blended with the unique nature of the story she tells, is what makes “Bold Spirit” the perfect choice to be the October selection for The Spokesman-Review Book Club.
“The publisher is thrilled and I’m really excited, too,” Hunt says of the Book Sense recommendation. “That’s all the independent bookstores, the Auntie’s (Bookstore) of the world, who nominate hundreds of these and then select their top 10.”
More impressive, Hunt says, “You know, we haven’t even launched in the South or the East or the Midwest yet.”
Hunt, a former professor of English at Whitworth College, stumbled on the story of Estby in 1984. Estby's great-great grandson, an eight-grader named Doug Bahr, had written an essay titled, simply, “Grandma Walks from Coast to Coast.”
Intrigued, Hunt cobbled together a book out of the few original sources that she could find, interviews with surviving family members and from the many newspaper stories that were written as Estby and her daughter traveled from town to town.
More than just a history, though, “Bold Spirit” both shows the difficult nature of life in the late 19th century and fills in the blanks about the life of this woman who, as the title of Hunt's book indicates, boasted more than her share of endurance.
It was on May 5, 1896, that Helga Estby — then a 36-year-old Spokane housewife and mother — set off with her 18-year-old daughter Clara. While the direction they first began walking would take them south, into Oregon, Idaho and then Utah, the two women had a bigger destination in mind.
They intended to walk all the way to New York City.
It sounds crazy now. What sane person, woman or man, would leave her husband and eight children just to walk across America? Answer: a desperate one.
A few years before, Estby and her husband, a 45-year-old carpenter named Ole, had moved with their brood on a 160-acre farm in the close-knit community of Mica Creek. Life was good.
But then the economic crisis that came to be known as The Panic of 1893 hit the country. Everyone, rich and poor alike, was affected. With Ole unable to find work, the family was forced to borrow $1,000 just to get by. When the note came due, there was no money to pay it off.
Then Helga had an idea. She’d heard that either a “ ‘wealthy woman’ in New York” or “eastern parties connected to the fashion industry” — it was never quite clear which — was (or were) offering a reward of $10,000 to any woman who could make the trek under certain conditions:
The travelers would have to wear a “bicycling costume,” which Hunt describes “a light-gray flannel costume (that) included a short skirt that fell several inches below the knee, leggings, and a jacket.” They would have to depart with no more than $5 in hand and were not allowed to panhandle along the way (they were expected to find work).
Finally, they were required to visit state capitals and get the signatures “important political persons along the way.”
It was a challenge, but Estby figured that she was up to it. After all, as the Walla Walla Bulletin said, Estby was “a plucky woman.”
She would need to be. The two women walked through blazing sun, trudged through snow, modeled their costumes in Salt Lake City, fended off hoboes outside of Chicago with the revolver that Helga was carrying, raised money where they could and slowly made their way east.
“They had been lost in forests, had adventures with mountain lions, but still they trudged on in their short gray suits and came up smiling,” wrote a reporter for the Laramie, Wyo., Daily Sun Leader.
It’s only fair not to reveal the story’s end, except to say that fairy-tale endings happen only in children’s stories. By those standards, Helga Estby’s saga was truly an adult experience.
Yet the legacy that Estby left, especially as portrayed by Hunt, is one that has connected with many readers, professional and amateur.
“The story of Helga Estby is more than just a story about her walk across America during a time when being bold was not acceptable for women,” wrote one reader on the Barnes & Noble Web site. “It touches the heart of the value of family stories. I was mesmerized by the courage and audacity of two women doing something that even today would be considered an accomplishment, but without the benefit of good roads, cell phones and REI equipment.”
“This book, filled with wonderful pictures of Helga, Clara and Victorian America, captures the imagination and confirms the value of preserving family stories,” wrote a reviewer for the Logan (Utah) Herald Journal. “It is one of the most memorable I've read in a long time. Readers interested in women's history, the Victorian era and/or a good story about a significant historical event will find this book well worth their time and money.”
Spokesman-Review Book Club members may end up feeling the same. October is your chance to find out.