Saturday, May 21, 2011

What I've Read This Week

What I've Read This Week . . .

The Year We Were Famous by Carole Estby Dagg -- Young Adult Historical Fiction
This novel is based on the true story of the author's great-grandmother and great-aunt. In order to save their family farm in Washington state,  mother and daughter accepted a $10,000 wager to walk across the country in 1896. After the death of her son Henry, Helga takes to her bed in a fit of dismals, leaving seventeen-year-old Clara to care for the younger children and the home by herself. Clara's father is trying to come up with ways to save the family farm and keep them from destitution but one bad harvest after another is not making ends meet. Clara could marry the boy next door, Erick Iverson, a hard-working dependable Norwegian boy, much like Clara's own father. Clara isn't sure what she wants out of life but she knows she doesn't want to get married now and be a farm wife the way her mother did. She dreams of going to college and maybe one day becoming a writer. Then her mother gets the crazy idea to walk across the country to prove women have the endurance for such a thing. At the end of the walk, a publisher in New York will award them $10,000 and publish a book based on their experiences - IF they make it, IF they survive and IF they can get there by the deadline of November 30. Clara thinks her mother's scheme is crazy. Clara has secretly longed for adventure though walking across country isn't what she had in mind. Her father urges her to go along to keep her mother motivated and on track. With a satchel each filled with necessities for emergencies, $5.00 each and sturdy walking shoes, the mother and daughter set forth on a walk across the continent. They manage to gain more publicity the farther east they go, meeting famous people along the way and gathering signatures and stories for their book. Clara learns a lot about the country but she also learns a lot about her mother. The two have a difficult relationship. They have opposite personalities and don't understand each other very well. Clara also learns her mother has been keeping a big secret from her. The walk not only challenges their endurance but it challenges their relationship with each other and the rest of the family they left behind. Along the way they encounter flash floods, sun stroke, Indians and tramps. They wonder if they will ever reach New York and find their way back home again. This is an exciting adventure tale/coming-of-age novel. It imagines the journey taken by the author's ancestors and provides descriptive details about what the pair encountered on their walk. It also looks more deeply at the mother-daughter relationship between Helga and Clara and imagines how their life experiences would have shaped their outlooks on life. Clara is a girl most teen girls can relate to. She isn't sure yet who she is and what she wants to do with her life. She thinks her mother doesn't understand her and isn't sympathetic to her feelings. The introspective plot woven into the adventure makes the book more realistic and interesting. I really liked Clara's personal journey and think the author did a wonderful job shaping her great-aunt. Helga comes across as sometimes unkind and uncaring but she wants what's best for her family and is willing to defy convention to do it. That makes her very admirable in my opinion. The writing style is casual and easy to read. It sounds like a real diary and real letters would. If I wasn't already familiar with the story, I would have been up all night reading to find out of they made it to New York. A map on the endpapers helps the reader follow along Clara and Helga's journey. This is a great book for kids 11+ and adults.

The author's note explains more about the family story and her motivation for writing which is very interesting. If you want a more scholarly/biographical look at Helga and Clara Estby's walk, (the book includes many photos) read Bold Spirit by Linda Lawrence Hunt.

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