Thursday, April 7, 2011

Book Review: The Year We Were Famous, by Carole Estby Dagg (Clarion Books, 2011)

Release date:  April 4, 2011

Recommended for ages 12 and up.

Debut novelist Carole Estby Dagg was inspired by her own family history to write the delightful new young adult historical novel, The Year We Were Famous.  Based on the true story of the author's great-aunt and great-grandmother, this adventure-filled novel set at the time of the suffragist movement tells the tale of 17-year old Clara Estby and her mother, Helga, who decide to walk clear across the United States from the small Norwegian-American farming community of Mica Creek, Washington to New York City--some 4,000 miles--to save their family farm from foreclosure.  Helga, a dedicated suffragist, also wanted to prove that women deserved the vote, because a woman was resourceful enough to make it across the country on her own, without a man's help.  All this, in an era when most women never went more than a few miles from their home.

The story, told in the first person by Clara, opens with Clara, the eldest of eight children, having returned from high school in Spokane to her family's farm in Mica Creek.  While brainstorming about ways to raise money to save their farm, her mother comes up with her idea of walking across the country, and begins seeking sponsors. At her pa's suggestion, Clara agrees to go along on an adventure that she can't begin to imagine: "This would be my year abroad, my year to turn the old Clara into someone bold, someone with newfound talents, strengths, and purpose in life."  And when a New York publisher offers them $10,000 if they complete the trip by November 30, 1896, they are on their way, equipped with calling cards, a letter from the mayor of Spokane attesting to their moral character, work boots, canteens, oil-skin ponchos, tooth powder and toothbrushes, two journals and six pencils, a second-hand satchel, and a compass given to Clara by Erick, the boy who's sweet on her--but no change of clothes!

Needless to say, Clara and her mother have no shortage of adventures on the way, as they follow the train tracks East, including encounters with Native Americans, outlaws, handsome journalists, and even the President-Elect and First Lady of the United States, not to mention blizzards, flash flood, lava fields, heat, thirst, and a sprained ankle.  Will they make it to New York on time to collect their prize and save the farm?  You'll have to read this to find out.  I, for one, had a hard time putting this book down. 

Author Dagg does an outstanding job bringing the voices of her intrepid ancestors to life; she extensively researched the lives of Victorian women in order to "get inside Great-Aunt Clara's head."  Teens are likely to identify with Clara's personality clashes with her mother, as well as her dreams of a life more exciting than being a farmer's wife in rural Mica Creek and her struggle between family obligations and becoming independent.

An excellent website for the book  offers more information on historical context and discussion themes; this would be a particularly appropriate title for a mother-daughter book club, and although the protagonist is seventeen, the book would be perfectly appropriate for readers as young as ten. 

And for those interested in reading more about this adventure, you can check out
Linda Lawrence Hunt's 2005 release for adult readers, Bold Spirit:  Helga Estby's Forgotten Walk Across Victorian America.  

In addition, a novel aimed at adult readers about Helga and Clara has also been released this spring:  The Daughter's Walk, by Jane Kirkpatrick (WaterBrook Press, 2011).

Here is the book trailer for The Year We Were Famous:

Other blog reviews:
The Ninja Librarian

Disclosure:  Review copy provided by publisher.

Check in tomorrow for a special guest post from author Carole Estby Dagg!


Gerbera Daisy Diaries said...

So excited to read your review...I added this to my Goodreads list a while back...can't wait to read it!

Teddy Rose said...

This is a book I have had my eye on. Your review convinced me to add it to my TBR. I already have The Daughter's Walk on it.