Based on the true story of the author’s great-grandmother and great-aunt, this novel is the story of Helga and Clara Estby’s 4600 mile trek, on foot, from Mica Creek, Washington to New York in 1896 to prove the strength and determination of women during the time of women’s suffrage. More importantly to Helga, if they can make it to New York in seven months a publisher will give her ten thousand dollars, money she needs to save the family farm from foreclosure. The idea to earn money for walking came from Clara’s fascination with Nellie Bly’s trip around the world.
There are hints before the journey even begins that Helga struggles emotionally, going to bed for long periods of time and entering into manic phases. Originally, Helga was to set out on the journey alone. Eighteen-year-old Clara’s desire is to get away from home and go to college, but her father asks her to go along on the trip and keep an eye on her mother. In fact he burdens Clara with bringing her mother home safely.
Helga likes to be in the lime light and produces calling cards to promote the trip along the way that contain her full name and daughter—barely acknowledging Clara. The two women argue mile by mile, working through stuffed resentments and issues. Helga says: “And if it weren’t for me, you’d still be back in Mica Creek, marrying Erick because you didn’t have the gumption to tell him no outright and figure out what you wanted to do with your life. I’m trying to teach you some gumption and you just whine about not getting your name on the cards.” The two also display tenderness towards each other and come through for each other during life-threatening situations. It turns out that Helga harbors a devastating secret about her past that influences her attitudes about her daughter’s choices.
Along the harrowing 232-day journey the women face days without food, a flash flood, and an attack by a highwayman. They also wear out thirty-two pairs of shoes and must rely on the kindness of strangers for a place to sleep each night, for work to earn a little money, and for food. They meet fascinating people along the way, revealing the politics and culture of the time. One day they demonstrate a curling iron to Native Americans, and another day they have tea with president-elect McKinley.
The first-person narrative is outward facing enough to keep it from feeling claustrophobic, and the novel keeps a brisk pace with action, dialogue, and specific details. A journey well worth the effort.
—Kari Baumbach, children’s literature enthusiast
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