Source of book: Lent to me by a friend
This is one of the sort of books that I might never have discovered had a friend not drawn my attention to it. Published by University of Idaho Press in 2003, this particular book was a discard from a Utah library. It is, fortunately, still in print, but hard to find in libraries.
This true story is both an inspiring triumph, and a tragedy on two completely different levels. The worst part is knowing what might have been, had circumstances been different.
In 1896, a Scandinavian immigrant (kind of like mine) named Helga Estby took a bold chance at fortune in order to save her family’s farm. She accepted a wager that she and her adult daughter could walk from Spokane, Washington, to New York City in 7 months, unaccompanied, and on foot, earning their way as the went. The prize was to be $10,000 - about $200,000 in 2003 funds, enough to pay the mortgage and save the farm. They left Helga’s husband and other children (including a toddler) and set out with little more than the clothes on their back, a revolver and pepper spray gun, and a curling iron. When they successfully completed the trip, the other party refused to perform, and they were left destitute in New York. Meanwhile, two of her children succumbed to diphtheria, the rest never forgave her, and her plans to write and sell a book based on the trip never came to pass. Later, one of her children burned her notes about the trip. Helga never talked about it, and her granddaughter later had to find out about the family secret by chance. The author of this book reconstructed the journey from the various newspaper accounts of the time. Helga was to check in with the governors of each state, and supported herself by selling pictures of herself and her daughter and by giving interviews along the way.
Helga got a bit of a rough start in life. She came to the United States as a child, but quickly learned the language and seemed to be headed for a promising education. However, under circumstances that were hushed up, she became pregnant at age 15. As was the usual thing in the time, she was hastily married off - to an older man who was very likely not the father. Because of the secrecy surrounding the situation, the child, Clara, did not find out about her parentage - or her true age - until she was an adult. And even then, nobody even told who the father was. The author speculates that Helga may have been raped by an employer, which is why she didn’t marry Clara’s father.
Helga would go on to have eleven children in 20 years, only 6 of which survived to adulthood. It is hard to know if she felt stifled in her life, but the fact that she took the chance to take a wild trip may be an indication that she needed to get away.
The circumstances leading up to the quest were all to commonplace. Her husband, a hardworking and decent man, had the misfortune to suffer an injury at the time of the 1893 panic, and he had difficulty supporting the family, even with Helga and the girls taking on odd jobs. Every time there is a financial meltdown - and this one, like the Great Depression and the most recent recession were caused by the financial shenanigans of the bankers and ultra-rich. And, as in the others, it was the poor that tended to pay for the sins of the rich. They are the ones who starved and suffered. Falling behind on payments, it was obvious to Helga that the bank would take their farm if she didn’t find a way out. And she did, in the incredibly bold way that was available to her.
Helga had an incident earlier which may have given her courage to make the attempt. She had fallen and injured herself due to a construction site on the road which was not lit nor marked. She suffered significant damage to her uterus. She underwent risky and innovative surgery (which was successful, as she had a few more children, and, well, walked across the continent), and also sued the city and the builder for her damages. At the time, the idea of describing in lurid detail the distinctly female damages - to an all male jury of course - was a bit scandalous. But how else was she to get compensation? She won, although the award was on the low side.
Of necessity, the details are a bit sparse in this book. Hunt does an admirable job of creating a compelling narrative out of limited materials. On the one hand, she has to speculate a good bit as to Helga’s experiences. Good grief is it a shame her notes were burned! What a loss. But on the other, I appreciate that Hunt took the time to give the back stories on some of the figures that Helga met with on the trip, from suffragettes to political figures. It was particularly fun that Helga came out in favor of the progressive (and a bit demagogic) William Jennings Bryan (famous both for his campaign slogans about the gold standard and for his later involvement in the Scopes trial.) The younger Clara, however, was a McKinley fan. Politics may have divided the two, but they apparently sparred with each other in good nature. Later, after the walk, Helga would actively participate in the suffrage movement, sometimes to the embarrassment of her more conservative family. Helga clearly violated the “acceptable” role for her gender in her culture.
One of the interesting things in the introduction to this book is that the author mentions Jerry Jenkins’ book, A Walk Across America. I read that book as a teen - it’s great and a lot of fun. But Jenkins walked at a time when it was okay to do so - and he did so as a man, not a woman. So he made some good money off of it (and bully for him) while Helga’s manuscript was burned in embarrassment.
There are a number of other gems from this book. One was the account of the political fights over prostitution in Spokane. In that delightful patriarchal culture, there were those who argued that prostitutes were necessary so that single men wouldn’t rape innocent women. Yeah, sacrifice the virtue of some to save that of many. It went well with the other side, which moralized about letting the wicked women into the community. Nobody challenged the basic patriarchal assumptions, of course.
Last year, I read The Mechanical Horse by Margaret Guroff which spoke at length of all the bizarre medical theories about women and exercise. This book touches on them, specifically noting the way that female helplessness was cultivated among the privileged - something the working class women were never afforded. Helga worked her butt off on the farm just as my own ancestors did. The idea that physical exertion would damage the reproductive capacity would have been so obviously ludicrous to my fertile forbearers. (And my wife - we do have five kids despite the fact that she averages 5 miles on her feet every shift she works.)
Ah, and speaking of other sexist stuff, how about the fact that before, during, and after the trek, a major concern expressed by others was that Helga and Clara were “risking their virtue” by hiking without a man to protect them. Because, well, if they got raped, it would totally be their fault, right?
There are some interesting things about this fear and the reality that the women encountered. First, while the fear was usually expressed that the hobos which frequented the rail lines that the women would follow (in lieu of roads - which were non-existent many places), it turned out that with very few exceptions, the hobos were surprisingly polite and supportive. The down-and-out and marginalized recognized each other. Who knew? (Actually, this has been my experience growing up in the almost-ghetto. There are crazy people, but most fears of the poor and homeless are irrational.)
Helga did have to deal with some aggressive and dangerous sorts. She found the pepper gun (which shot a spray of cayenne powder) to be highly effective. She also put a bullet into an aggressive and possibly insane man’s leg and “rolled him down the hill” as she said later.
Perhaps most interesting is that she found that political circumstances made a difference. In Wyoming, the quintessential Wild West state, they had become the first state to let women vote - and Helga found that she had little to no harassment. Political clout translated to safety for women, in direct contradiction to the naysayers of then - and now - who claimed women in the public sphere would invite assault and rape.
In contrast, she and Clara had the most difficulty in Pennsylvania. And not from the hobos, but from the macho steel and rail workers. Kind of like politics today. The more things change...
As part of the wager, Helga and Clara were required to wear “new women’s” styles. That is, skirts that showed the ankles, and covered leggings. This was the new athletic wear, replacing the floor-length skirts - although not quite to the level of bloomers, which female bicyclists wore. This caused its own scandal, naturally. But as advocates for the new style pointed out, “Until woman is allowed to have ankles, there is no hope for her brains.” Hey, I wrote a whole series on the connection between Modesty Culture and the subordination of women.
Political issues definitely came into this book as well. Although Helga’s notes were destroyed, we have records of what she said to the media during the trek. One of the key reasons that she supported Bryan is that she agreed with his assertion that a government that did not restrain its strongest citizens from injuring the weak failed to do its duty. This was at the end of the first Gilded Age. We are now in the second Gilded Age, with most of the exact same issues re-emerging, from the KKK and its ideas crawling out from under its rock, to the question of whether it is moral to let capital exploit labor. On this note, reformers like Jane Addams (mentioned at length) and many clergy (back when clergy weren’t shills for the GOP) argued that Christians “needed to help change the unjust structures that brutalized the vulnerable, not just provide individual charity after the fact.”
[I have spent some of my spare time today arguing with supposed “Christians” who are espousing the philosophy of Ayn Rand, Ludwig von Mises, and Murray Rothbard as if it was gospel truth. The more things change…]
The book ends with an extended philosophical musing on the silencing of stories. As those of us who study history have noticed, too often, history is written by the victors, by the powerful. The victims don’t tend to get the chance to tell their side, nor do the “little people” who often become pawns. In this case, there was a fantastic story. Helga was a badass, make no mistake, and it would have been so nice if she had been able to tell her story. But, like most women of the era - particularly those who were “respectable,” her story was silenced. By family, by friends, and ultimately by herself, as she chose to withdraw into herself rather than endure the hurt inflicted by those who condemned her for leaving her place as a woman.
But her story has been finally told, even if it is in truncated form. How many more stories have never and will never be told? We may never know. But these stories are important, and it is vitally important now that we tell these stories, despite the blowback from those who insist that the conventional, patriarchal, white supremacist stories are all that matter.
As the author says,
Every country needs individuals who refused to be silenced when breaking out of unhealthy cultural norms, despite the criticism.
This is my goal too. I have lost some friends over what I write, particularly when I challenge the dominant narrative. It is sad that it is necessary, but we are fighting right now against cultural norms which are not merely unhealthy, but outright malevolent toward the poor, the immigrant, the non-white, and the female. These stories need to be told - and heard. And we need to move toward a future when these stories are not suppressed, but celebrated. May it be so for my children.
Seriously people, diphtheria is nasty. It killed entire families in a few days, preying particularly on children. Thank god and scientists we have a vaccine now to protect against it. Ignore the conspiracy mongers and vaccinate your kids!