Bold spirit : Helga Estby's forgotten walk across Victorian America

by Linda Hunt

Paper Book, 2005




New York : Anchor Books, 2005.


History. Sociology. Women's Studies. Nonfiction. HTML: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 familyâ??s farm, Helga and her teenaged daughter Clara, armed with little more than a compass, red-pepper spray, a revolver, and Claraâ??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… (more)


½ (81 ratings; 3.6)

Media reviews

Bold Spirit is an amazing book about a young pioneer woman (Helga Estby) and her daughter who crossed America by foot in 1896. This journey is amazing on a variety of levels. First, the modern day reader becomes immersed in the struggles that were the everyday life of American pioneers--and this
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offers us a lesson on the trials lived by many of our ancestors so that we, their descendants, live a life of of greater choice and ease (in comparison).
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User reviews

LibraryThing member CaptainsGirl
When has someone created a non-fiction biography out of so little information? The author cobbled this story from a few newspaper accounts and family member's limited knowledge and filled in with conjecture and historical bacground. While it is interesting, informative and inspiring, it is also a
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sad commentary on the lost stories of individuals, especially women, who are marginalized and humiliated when their accomplishments are 'before their time.'

Helga Esthy's walk from Spokane to Manhattan, accompanied by her daughter, Clara, is an amazing, nearly unbelievable story. Without a change of clothes or cooking utensils, portable shelter, or blankets, they make their way across the nation on what is utimately a failed mission. While they accomplish their task, the unknown (and hearless?) proponent of the $10,000 wager reneges, leaving them stranded and penniless.
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LibraryThing member SeriousGrace
On May 5th 1896 Helga Estby and her daughter, Clara, embark on a cross country journey on foot to raise money for their impoverished family. Everything about this journey is fraught with risk. Consider the facts. First, her home life: Helga has nine children she must leave in the care of her out-of
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work-husband. As a Norwegian, this is a scandalous decision simply because women do not leave their families for anything. Second, the "scheme": a wealthy yet unknown sponsor with ties to the fashion industry is offering a reward of $10,000 if Helga can walk from Spokane, Washington to New York City in seven months. Helga knows very little about this benefactor and the trip will be extremely dangerous. In addition, although this unknown sponsor wants to prove the physical endurance of women, she has a few rules.

  1. Helga and her daughter may only start out with $5 a piece. All other income must be earned along the way. [They end of selling photographs of themselves and doing odd chores.]

  2. They must visit each state's capital.

  3. They must acquire the signature of prominent politicians

  4. Once arriving in Salt Lake City, must don a "reform costume" otherwise known as a bicycle skirt. This was an effort to display the latest fashion - a dress that was several inches shorter to give women "leg freedom" and was considered quite scandalous.

  5. They could not beg for anything - rides, food, or shelter.

  6. They could not pay for rides.

  7. They had to arrive in New York by early December.

This sets the stage for Hunt's Bold Spirit but what emerges is a story about courage and commitment. Unfortunately, because Helga Estby and her family were so ashamed of her venture when it was all said and done, very little evidence of her walk was properly preserved. Most everything was willfully destroyed. As a result Hunt has to rely on speculation to fill in the gaps. Language like "they were likely", "perhaps", "it is possible", probably", and "they might have" pepper the entire book.
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LibraryThing member Gwendydd
Bold Spirit tells the fascinating story of Helga Estby, a Norwegian immigrant living in eastern Washington. Her family was beset by hard times, and she felt that she needed to take extreme measures to save the farm and keep her family from poverty. Someone offered her $10,000 if she would walk from
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Washington to New York City, wearing a radical short skirt ("short" meaning 5-8 inches off the ground). This was an era when doctors thought that women were weak and frail and not capable of walking even short distances. It was also an era when women didn't do things on their own, so Helga was criticized for leaving her husband and children behind.

What makes this story even more fascinating is that it was almost lost. The family was unhappy about Helga's extraordinary journey, and so they did everything they could to eradicate it from the family history. Helga could have gone down in history as one of the most important feminist figures of her era, but her family suppressed the story and its memory, and if not for a great-grandson's essay, which happened to land on an interested historian's desk, this story would have been totally lost. Hunt didn't have any first-hand accounts of the story - she had to recreate the journey based on newspaper accounts written as Helga traveled.

This is exactly what I think a history book for a popular audience should do: it focuses on an interesting small story (Helga and Clara's trans-continental walk), but uses that story as a springing-board to tell a bigger story about regional, national, and social history (the women's movement, the Bryan vs. McKinley presidential race, economic issues, etc.). Then, Hunt wraps the book up with some musings about the nature of history and about family history in general. The book even has a call to action to readers to make sure that their families' stories are not lost. All of this is told in an interesting, well-written style, and not over-dramatized. There are brief footnotes to back up quotes and other evidence.

My only criticism, from a historian's point of view, is that Hunt by necessity has to do a lot of conjecture about what Helga thought and felt, and although she sometimes makes it clear when she is conjecturing, I think she could provide a little more clarity about just how little we actually know about Helga and what was going on in her head. Hunt creates a strong personality for Helga, and although I'm sure this personality came from the records Hunt read, I wish she had been a bit more clear about how she came to her conclusions about what Helga was thinking.
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LibraryThing member Barry
An amazing story only slightly let down by the writing style.

This was the second top book in my Unsuggester list and so experimental fool that I am I had to buy it and I'm so glad that I did. My only worry is that despite me owning it and adding it it still appears on my unsuggester list (Heads
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off briefly to bug collectors).

The story is truly amazing of how a mother and her eldest daughter try to walk across America to win a wager that they desperately need. The story of the trek itself is well told but equally interesting is the reaction of the society in which they lived.

There are elements of adventure, social and feminist history and even politics within this story and whilst this is an interesting mixture I feel that it leads to problems with the writing style in that it can't ever really decide if it wants to be serious history, popular non-fiction or even sometimes reaching towards a fact based novel.

Buy it/borrow it/steal it/forget it? Buy it
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LibraryThing member cathyskye
Hunt's book chronicles Helga and her daughter Clara's walk from Spokane, Washington to New York City in 1896. Never heard of it? Neither had I, and there's a reason for that.

After the crash of 1893, times were hard. The Estbys (both Norwegian
immigrants) were behind on taxes and the mortgage. They
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had eight children
to feed. Helga's husband was injured and unable to work. Helga learned that
a mysterious sponsor would pay $10,000 to a woman who walked across America.
She knew that this was the only way to save their farm, put food on the
table, and pay for their children's schooling. (She was a firm believer in
higher education.)

Helga and Clara set out on a trip that would pass through fourteen
states--Indian reservations, Western boom towns, remote ranches and local
civic leaders. They would experience snowstorms, hunger, thieves and
mountain lions. They were armed with little more than a compass, red pepper
spray, a revolver and Clara's curling iron. According to the terms of the
sponsor, they were not allowed to carry more than $5 each and were expected
to earn their way across the country while not taking any other mode of
transportation than "shank's mare".

Their treacherous and inspirational journey challenged contemporary notions
of femininity and captured public imagination, but their trip had such
devastating consequences that the Estby women's achievement was blanketed in
silence for almost a century.

This is an engrossing, fast-moving story about two amazing women and the
overwhelming importance of family history--how stories of family
achievements and personalities define whom we are. Lastly, it's an
indictment of those who willfully and knowingly destroy history simply
because the historymakers do not fit their preconceived molds. I'm glad that
Helga has finally had her story told. I just wish that it could've been in
her own words.
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LibraryThing member CasaBooks
An amazing unexpected true story.
Read it aloud with Winston and we marveled at so much of the facts.
The "Walk" was an incredible undertaking and the fact that her family disposed of most of the correspondence was just unbelievably disappointing.
How much more of a story it was and we could have
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learned about, if they hadn't been so ashamed to destroy "the evidence".
It's a recommend.
Read in 2010.
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LibraryThing member catzkc
Amazing true story. As if the story itself wasn't enough (and it is) the author really did research into the cultural and social history of the U.S. and the Norweigian immigrant community of which Helga belongs. This understanding of time and place makes you appreciate Helga's struggle even more.
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It's also a story about family secrets and the judgements we make on other people.
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LibraryThing member turtlesleap
On May 5, 1896, Helga Estby set out with her daughter Clara to walk across the country. In so doing, she violated social norms of the time, separated herself from her family for over a year and braved danger and privation. Her stated objective was to earn money to save the family farm from
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foreclosure. We cannot know what other motivations Helga may have had for her detailed account of the journey was later destroyed by embittered family members. The account of her travels, however makes fascinating reading. Inevitably, one must speculate about what, besides financial need, must have driven this mother of ten to undertake such a bold journey. The book is well illustrated and well-researched. Recommended.
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LibraryThing member cacky
Fascinating, well-written adventure story of a mother and daughter's adventures as they walk across America at the end of the 19th Century.
LibraryThing member snash
An interesting story although of a determined strong woman's walk across America who was essentially beaten by her family in the end. Since the story was so successfully buried, the author was hampered by a scarcity of facts which she covered with background information and speculation.
LibraryThing member Carolfoasia
What an interesting and BOLD thing to do for a Norwegian woman in 1896! It was quite a risk for such an uncertain reward. I am not sure if I would have chosen to do it, but she did it for love of her family.

I loved the Pacific Northwest history of Spokane Falls, WA and recommended this book to a
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friend who recently moved there.

It is too bad that there were not more records for the author to go on. I would have liked more historical background and interviews with the living relatives (perhaps I will check into the book written now by one of them).

It seemed like more of a shell of a book to me that didn't really draw me in. I just read Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. So, this was a very hard act to follow! I wondered what Hillenbrand could have done with a book like this. She is a pro at weaving history and personal story together. Since this is this author's only novel, I can cut her some slack!

The audiobook narrator was not the greatest either. That might have been my issue too. She seemed to have some trouble pronouncing words so this was distracting.

Overall, I enjoyed the book. It begs to have a movie made!
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LibraryThing member book58lover
This biography is exactly the problem with women's history -- it is hidden. And it is hidden very overtly by the family, which makes the entire story very difficult to process. Helga Estby wrote down all her experiences and her daughters burned the papers. How awful for the next generations. This
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makes Hunt's research very difficult because she had to depend on secondary sources, and this leaves big gaps in the story. Who initiated the 'contest' and the even bigger question is why Helga Estby? Why was this proposed only to her and not open to the general public? We will probably never know the answers if Hunt couldn't ferret them out. Considering what the author had to work with this is an exceptional history of Victorian America and the regional differences that explain the varying degrees of support for women's issues. The book is filled with photographs which are delightful and stunning. Thanks to the second and third generations for saving them.
I could not put this book down and honor her spirit and tenacity.
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LibraryThing member lostinavalonOR
The following rant contains spoilers later on so read at your own peril...

This author really really wanted to write a book. I get so irritated when an author takes one little historical nugget with almost ZERO back story and decides she's going to write a WHOLE book around it. What we get is tons
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of "life stuff"---most of which is either speculation or unapplicable. At page 66, I stopped to write this first rant. At that point, I was still reading about her garden flowers. If you're going to write a life story, call it a biography and label it accordingly. So far, there's been nothing about "Helga Estby's Forgotten Walk Across Victorian America". In fact, we don't actually get to that until page 83. Ugh.

I'm also getting irritated by the assumptions this author is making because she so desperately WANTS Estby to have been a feminist from the very beginning. While she seems to have drummed up some evidence (mostly hearsay from a probable feminist relative) of Helga's views later on, I don't think there's a good case for it in her early years. What better explains her early actions is the fact that she was the only English speaking person in the family for a long time and was, therefore, the only one who could communicate with most of the people around them. She wasn't "taking authority" because she wanted to step out from her husband's protection, she was being the voice of the family to a community that didn't speak their language. Her lifestyle before her walk definitely doesn't match what the real feminists were pushing at that time.

The author liked to make a lot of claims about Helga's political leanings, as well. There were a lot of political rabbit trails to fill space in the book and lots of repetition throughout. Very frustrating. I also thought that if the author was going to include so many randomly researched details she could have enlightened us on things that actually pertained to the journey. For instance, I would have loved to have learned about how they transported water over distances between towns---or did they always drink from streams? What kinds of foods would they have packed along that would sustain them, yet leave their packs less than the eight pounds she mentioned? How would they have dealt with their "time of the month", etc? You know...basics that are a little more relevant than the much repeated info.

I did enjoy reading (briefly) about her time in Walla Walla, Pendleton, and Baker City in Eastern Washington and Oregon, since that's where I'm from.

At first, I could sympathize with her reasons for making the journey. I did my best to be on her side and see it as an act of desperation. However, once I finished the book, my mind had changed. I completely sympathize with her children and the distance they put in between themselves and their mother. In the long run, what good was accomplished here? So much bad had come out of it. To have done all this with no one to guarantee that this was even a legit deal? I guess I didn't realize until the end that there was no one holding the donor accountable. Funny how that little detail was left out until the end. But hey, if it would have been made clearer earlier then we wouldn't really have a story, now would we? I think Estby was extremely stupid and irresponsible if this all took place the way the author makes it appear. What was her husband's take on all this? Why did he let her go? I definitely wouldn't call her courageous. Desperate maybe, but I see no honor in any of this.

Now that I've completely annihilated this book, I'm curious what future readers think of it.
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LibraryThing member Krumbs
This kind of read like a term paper, which was strange. If it had better narrative flow it would have been a much faster and more interesting read. The story itself is interesting and I was glad to have the background about Helga Estby and her family; without it the actual walk across America would
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have been even more dry than it was. Not sure how the adventurous part ended up being so slow and the family life coverage was so interesting; perhaps the author was just more interested in that aspect of social history. The ultimate end of the Estby story is sad. I'll never understand why people burn papers and diaries after their relatives die. What a waste.
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LibraryThing member sraelling
What an amazing extraordinary accomplishment! To walk over 3500 miles only to fade into historical obscurity. So glad to have been introduced to Helga and her daughter, Clara.
LibraryThing member kevn57
Ok biography, not much detail about the walk just info that could be found from newspaper accounts of the era.
LibraryThing member jennybeast
This was a totally fascinating story that would have scored higher in my book if the author had more information about Helga. The point of the book is that many women's stories have been intentionally buried by society. This leads to a book that tries to string you along to the next part of the
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story because there isn't enough of the story known to merit a book of this size, and pads out any empty space with rants about burying women's history. The format got old after a while.
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LibraryThing member EllenH
Wow! I loved this book. Reading about this woman's struggle and adventure in her trip across America in the Victorian period was eye opening for women's issues and for family issues. That her story wasn't told for so long is a fascinating story. It would be a great book club read, except for the
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fact that it doesn't seem to be available in large print or audio book.
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LibraryThing member LyndaInOregon
In 1896, a 36-year-old Norwegian immigrant named Helga Estby set out with her 18-year-old daughter, Clara, to walk from Spokane, Washington, to New York City, in hopes of winning a $10,000 cash prize. She wanted to use the winnings to prevent foreclosure on the family’s Washington farm and to
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provide a more secure life for herself, her husband, and their eight children.

[Bold Spirit] is the story of that walk – of the culture that formed Estby, of the personal and national events that led to the family’s distress, of the changing roles of American women as the Victorian era waned, and of the societal norms that nearly resulted in the story disappearing from the pages of history.

It’s a huge, complex, and ultimately distressing story, and one that Hunt keeps firmly within the realm of scholarship, which is probably the book’s biggest flaw. Like Lauren Kessler’s [Stubborn Twig], which dealt with a Japanese-American family’s internment during World War II, Bold Spirit is essentially stripped of its inherent drama and keeps the reader firmly at arm’s length.

There’s still a lot to digest here, though it takes some reading between the lines. The story is worth knowing, and Hunt’s retelling simply cracks open the door. One hopes a writer who is as interested in the heart of this amazing woman as in the journey she made will revisit this rich and multi-faceted American tale.
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Washington State Book Award (Winner — 2004)
WILLA Literary Award (Winner — Nonfiction — 2004)


Original publication date


Physical description

xvi, 307 p.; 21 cm


1400079934 / 9781400079933
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