April 22, 2011

Interview with Carole Estby Dagg (The Year We Were Famous)

I have a very special treat today. A historical fiction book written by a descendant of the characters! Isn't that cool? Carole Estby Dagg wrote the story that Helga and Clara Etsby never got to write. And she's here today for an interview!

The Year We Were FamousWith their family home facing foreclosure, seventeen-year-old Clara Estby and her mother, Helga, need to raise a lot of money fast—no easy feat for two women in 1896. Helga wants to tackle the problem with her usual loud and flashy style, while Clara favors a less showy approach. Together they come up with a plan to walk the 4,600 miles from Mica Creek, Washington, to New York City—and if they can do it in only seven months, a publisher has agreed to give them $10,000. Based on the true story of the author’s great-aunt and great-grandmother, this is a fast-paced historical adventure that sets the drama of Around the World in Eighty Days against an American backdrop during the time of the suffragist movement, the 1896 presidential campaign, and the changing perception of “a woman’s place” in society.

What did your Great-aunt Clara and her mother Helga pack for their four thousand-mile walk across the country?
    Since they had to fit everything into satchels which they would carry from Washington State to New York City,  they had no room for blankets , a frying pan, or –since this was 1896 and Victorian women’s clothing was so cumbersome--even a change of clothes.  They did pack maps and a compass, first-aid supplies, canteens of water, matches, soap, pepper spray,  journals and pencils, knives, a pistol, and a curling iron.  In travel-stained clothes (but recently styled hair) they encountered the whole spectrum of 1890’s society from hobos and homesteaders to governors and even president-elect William McKinley.

Did they take a lot of money with them?
    They started with just five dollars apiece; as shoes or clothes wore out, they had to stop and earn money to replace them.  In 1896, there were no motels along the way, and they wouldn’t have had money for one even if there had been.  They relied on providence and the kindness of strangers who sheltered them for the night to survive from one day to the next.  To repay their host’s kindness, Clara and Helga  did chores or gave them signed portraits as a keepsake.  In the vast empty stretches of the plains, however, they sometimes passed whole days without seeing another home and had to sleep outside without blankets or any shelter

A young woman and her mother traveling alone for over seven months…how did they protect themselves?
    They carried a pistol and an insect sprayer filled with pepper, a trick Helga Estby learned from her suffragist friends.  They used the gun once to shoot a would-be assailant in the leg, but in other cases the pepper spray was adequate deterrent.

Since Clara and Helga were the first women to attempt to walk by themselves nearly coast to coast, were they celebrated along the way?
    Nope. Most public opinion fell into two categories: they couldn’t do it or they shouldn’t. In the ‘couldn’t do it’ camp was the reporter from the New York World who wrote:  “They intend to write up their adventures afterwards if they survive the experiment.”  Even though a woman could survive ten childbirths in twenty years and put a hand to a plow when she had to, she was still ‘the weaker sex,’ constitutionally incapable of walking 25 miles a day for over seven months.
     In the ‘shouldn’t do it’ camp were most conventional thinkers who were  scandalized that Clara’s mother would leave seven of her children  behind for so long, even if it was with the hope of winning enough money to save the family’s farm.  The fact that Clara’s mother was ‘one of those suffragists’ and Clara and Helga started wearing shorter bicycle skirts in Salt Lake City reinforced the idea that they weren’t quite respectable.  To allay suspicions of folks they might be asking for shelter, Helga Estby arranged for a letter of introduction on official city stationery from Mayor Belt of Spokane, who vouched for their respectability.
     I didn’t inherit Clara and Helga’s physical endurance, but I guess I did inherit their stubborn Norwegian perseverance, because it has been fifteen years between my first rejection letter and the day I’m finally seeing The Year We Were Famous in print.


  1. I am so excited to read this interview! I have the book on my Nook and am looking forward to reading it soon! WONDERFUL interview :)

  2. sounds like a great book. And I admire the author's perseverance in getting the story published. I'll add it to my Goodreads list!


Say something...