Friday, December 30, 2011

Book Review: The Year We Were Famous by Carole Estby Dagg

What a cute, sweet book! And yet, it also has a lot of deeper themes and topics that would be perfect for a book club but it doesn't hit you over the head with them and if you prefer to just read it superficially for the story, it's still fun and enjoyable. (And the jacket doesn't photograph well - the book is a lot prettier in person than the images make it look.)

It's 1896. The country is in the midst of yet another depression (we had a lot of them in the 1800s). The Estbys are barely scraping by, with their father, Ole, injured and so unable to do any carpentry, the farm alone isn't enough to support a family of 10. And their mother, Helga, has taken to her bed which she is wont to do from time to time. One day Clara, the eldest, is talking with Helga about how much she admires Nellie Bly, the female journalist who was recently paid to travel around the world. It puts a bug in Helga's ear and soon she has an idea to save the farm: she'll walk across the United States and get someone to pay her to do so. She's mostly doing it to save the farm, but she also wants to prove that women are strong and can do things many men think they can't, which she hopes by default will mean voting as she's a staunch suffragist.

As Helga isn't in the best of health, having just spent a month or so in bed, and inclined to crash into depression as quickly as her flights of fancy hit (pretty easy to see undiagnosed bipolar disorder), Ole asks Clara to join Helga on her walk. Helga gets a woman publisher in New York to agree to pay her $10,000 if she (and Clara) can make the walk in seven months. No one thinks they can do it. The first day, without any preparation, they walk 26 miles. Having recently walked a marathon myself, and not in corsets, floor-length skirts, or ill-fitting work boots, I am astonished at their fortitude. And they keep going despite bad weather, no food, no places to stay (they rely on the kindness of strangers the entire way), occasional very unfortunate bad directions or wrong ways, blisters, no water, dangerous strangers, and they keep walking for 4000 miles.

Do they make it? Do they make the deadline? Do they save the farm? Will Clara marry the neighbor Erick (nice but boring) when they return? What of the handsome journalist she meets along the way? Will mother and daughter kill each other on the trip?

While the story itself has more than enough excitement to keep one entertained throughout, the novel also brings up questions of obligations, responsibilities, whether sticking out a crazy bet like this shows determination or foolhardiness, should Clara follow her heart and her ambitions, or help save her family and settle down, and what was our country thinking a century ago with no safety nets at all when times got tough aside? There are a lot of topics for potential discussion, but I enjoyed it thoroughly just with the story itself. It was a very fast read (I read it on 2 days) and I highly recommend it. Being based on the true-life story of the author's great-grandmother and great-aunt just made it that much more interesting!

I bought this book at my local independent bookstore.


Cath said...

This is why I love your blog...I never would have heard of this book otherwise but I am sure it is going to be a favorite. Thanks!

Amy Fellner Dominy said...

I LOVED this book. Yeah, it's got lots of great historical information so it's fascinating and educational, but mostly it's just a great story. :-)