Seventeen-year-old Clara longs to escape the confines of her family homestead in small Mica Creek, near Spokane, Washington. But finances are tight, and the family is in danger of losing their home and land if they don’t raise the money needed. When Helga, Clara’s mother, comes up with a plan to walk from their home to New York City as a way to earn money, Clara goes with her. The question is, will her trip show a way for her to leave home forever, or will it bind Clara more tightly to the family and neighbors she leaves behind?
The Year We Were Famous by Carole Estby Dagg is a fictionalized story based on real events from the late 1800s. Helga and Clara are the author’s great grandmother and great aunt, and Dagg breathes life into their saga through Clara’s eyes.
At eighteen, Clara chafes at the life of drudgery that comes from living on a farm and the prospect of marrying someone not for love, but for reliability and proximity. Restrictions on women in particular were strict in those times, and they were limited in the ways they could earn money. Helga is active in the suffragette movement and takes the opportunity to promote the vote for women on their trip.
Through Clara’s eyes, the country the two women pass through and the challenges they face come alive. Railroads were crucial for life in those times, and travelers often depended on the kindness of strangers they would never see again
While the real Clara did keep a journal of her trip and the two hoped to write a book about their experience, their adventure was never captured in publication and Clara’s journal was destroyed. In a note at the end, Dagg says she hopes “Helga and Clara would not wince at the words I have put in their mouths or the thoughts I have put in their heads.” To readers, the important thing is that the story is well told and brings this time in history to life.
I highly recommend The Year We Were Famous for mother-daughter book clubs with girls aged 12 and up. Issues to discuss include women getting the right to vote, differing views of women and their abilities between then and now, young people making decisions about their future, and what we can learn when we travel far away from home.
I received a copy of this book from the author for review.