Books I’ve Read: ‘Bold Spirit’ Delves Into a Woman’s Role As Mother, Provider in 1896

Bold SpiritThis is another one of my thrift store finds and it was the subtitle that caught my eye. Bold Spirit: Helga Estby’s Forgotten Walk Across Victorian America by Linda Lawrence Hunt is a story about grit, hope, despair, betrayal and loss. It is a story that would be forever lost if a 8th grade student had not written an essay about his great-great-grandmother’s walk across the United States. When historian Linda Hunt read the boy’s essay, she tracks down articles and pieces the story together.

Helga Estby, a 36-year-old mother of nine, and her 19-year-old daughter, Clara, leave Spokane, Washington on a quest to be in New York City by December in exchange for $10,000. Helga leaves behind her seven children (a 12-year-old son died just five months earlier) and her injured husband in an effort to save the family farm.

As a reader, the money — offered by an unnamed sponsor (who required a contract be signed)  — seems sketchy from the outset, but it also gives a hint of the desperation Helga must have felt after the death of her son and her husband’s inability to work combined with unpaid taxes and a looming foreclosure. So even though the wager has the feel of a lottery (albeit one that requires a 3,500 mile walk) it is understandable why she would undertake the journey.

Some of the rules stipulated by the contract included:

  • the type of dress to wear (a bicycle skirt)
  • earn enough money along the way to pay for food and board (they left Washington with $5 a piece)
  • visit state capitals in the West
  • acquire signature of governors and other ‘important’ people along the way.

Helga and Clara keep their end of the deal and overcome wild animals, hunger, harsh weather, thugs and miscreants — protecting themselves with a small revolver and a pepper spray mechanism. Along the way, they become famous and well known as newspapers report their progress. They even spend the night at the home of president-elect William McKinley and eat dinner with the wife of president hopeful William Jennings Bryan (he was out of town campaigning).

But, the journey alienates Helga from her family.

The alienation begins when she arrives in New York and the sponsor does not honor the contract, leaving Helga and Clara broke and stranded. While in New York, one of Helga’s children contracts diphtheria and dies. Shortly after she finally secures train passage home a second child dies.

By the time she reaches Spokane, Helga is more of a villain than a heroine and so her story is silenced. So much so, that when she dies more than 40 years later, her children burn the manuscript she had written.

Rated 5 out of 5. The book is about so much more than the walk. Hunt successfully captures the mood and mores of the late 1800’s in the United States. She does an excellent job recreating the hardships of daily life faced by immigrants like Helga as they try to create a better life for their children.

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Categories: American History, Books I have read

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