Friday, October 2, 2009

A Rag Rug History: Bold Spirit


Bold Spirit by Linda Lawrence Hunt is two stories in one. The first deals with Helga Estby, a Norwegian immigrant and mother of eight children who attempts to walk from eastern Washington to New York City hoping to collect $10,000 from a mysterious sponsor. The other story involves how family stories are passed, or not passed, in Helga’s instance, to future generations.


The author recreates the walk across America mainly using newspaper articles about Helga and her daughter, Clara. Since they were not allowed to have more than $5 at any time they had to earn money along the route. This included taking odd jobs and also selling formal portraits of themselves in their bicycle skirts. The sponsoring party wanted the women to wear a type of bicycle skirt introduced at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893. There had been resistance by American women to wearing the shorter skirts even though it was gaining acceptance in the fashion centers of Paris and New York.

Besides serving as a walking advertisement for fashion reform, the sponsors wanted this cross-continent achievement to prove the endurance of women. Many in society believed that women were physically delicate and needed to be protected. Helga and Clara proved that women were anything but physically delicate.

Helga is a woman pushing societal boundaries but also bound by societal conventions. This continuing struggle adds drama to an already interesting tale. Hunt does a good job of explaining the constraints faced by women in the 1890’s and the changes which were taking place in society. In the book we are introduced to three women, Mary Baird Bryan (wife of William Jennings Bryan), Jane Addams (founder of Hull House and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and Helga, all born in 1860 but by the time they are 26 their lives are very different. It was an interesting look at the advantages and disadvantages of being born into “privilege” in Victorian society.

I have to agree with the author that Helga’s experience as an immigrant helped her travel the 2500 miles in unknown territory from Spokane to New York.  She came to America from Scandinavia as a child and first settled in Michigan and then homesteaded in Minnesota after becoming pregnant and marrying Ole Estby at 16.

For me the way the author found the details of the story was also intriguing. Since very little information was available from the family Hunt found most of her information about the journey from newspaper articles written when the two would visit a city. The author spent 17 years traveling throughout the United States and to Norway as she pieced together scraps of information about Helga, gradually weaving them into what she calls a “rag rug” history.  The author did a good job of filling in the blanks about this trip. I thought the book was solidly researched and the author admitted when there was information that could not be found.

Equally interesting is the end of the book which discusses why families choose to not pass information on to the next generation. In fact, Helga’s family destroys the diary, sketches and letters that Helga created on her trip shortly after she died in an attempt to hide what they considered shameful.

 She gives six reasons and explains each of them and uses Helga’s story as the example but does it in such a way that it makes you start thinking about your own family stories. And wondering what was not told about your ancestors.

Bold Spirit is a historical and psychological look at an almost forgotten walk across America. But thanks to Dr. Hunt Helga’s story is no longer something to hide but an adventure to celebrate and a reminder to us all to pass on our stories to the next generation.

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