By Josie E. Davis
“I was as jumpy as a colt smelling cougar scat.” And so begins the cross continental journal of Miss Clara Estby, a blossoming young woman made famous for one year alongside her mother, Helga Estby, in a series of suffragist and life threatening efforts to save the family and their farm in Mica Creek, Washington.
By the end of the introduction I’ve fallen back in time to 1896 and into the shoes of Clara. What strikes me as famous, even more than walking from Spokane to New York, is the ability of Carole Estby Dagg to bring to life such a breathtaking account of the American landscape through the narrative of a young woman who is both fiction and family.
It’s clear that Dagg is writing more than just fiction. Her words are eloquent, youthful, and strong, as if Clara herself were writing the book she imagined this journey to be. “The first seventeen years and three months of my life were ordinary, they would not be worth the telling,” Clara begins, a timeless introduction that brings us all a heartbeat closer to our protagonist.
The book thrusts forward without hesitation and within pages I’m twisting my toes in hopes that Ma – Helga – regains her strength and hits the road. The road, I wonder, can’t be that hard because hey, there’s always time.
“Pa shuffled out of the bedroom, rubbing his eyes. ‘I thought I heard you up, Mrs. Estby!’ His eyes glowed with a tenderness that made me blush. I hoped someone besides Erick Iverson looked at me that way someday.”
It is with this tenderness that Clara and Helga venture into the heart of the book, where Dagg invites us to join a different family – that of women, suffragists, politicians, journalists, and pedestrians. State by state we open our eyes as Clara does, as a young woman seeking love and a chance to embrace what lies beyond an inevitable marriage in Mica Creek.
“Dry as I was, my curiosity was still healthy enough to investigate a glint of something shiny at the end of one of
the railroad ties twenty or so feet ahead … ‘Water!’ I croaked, waving the bottles like flags …”
There’s nothing like a quick jaunt across the country to make you appreciate a good pair of boots, a cold glass of water, and your mother. I often pride myself on coming from a family of strong women, and I’m sure many people do the same. My motto, taken from my grandmother, is “onward!”. Dagg reminds us that we are in fact human and when push comes to shove, “onward” is often the only story left.
“’For the walking ladies,’ … Ma would have claimed it was a special delivery from one of her guardian angels, but I knew there had to be an earthly deliverer out there somewhere … more bottles and canning jars of water appeared every five of ten miles for the next month. There must have been an organized campaign … sometimes the bottles were still cool … other times we’d see a shy child or a farm wife standing back from the track, shading her eyes with one hand and waving as we passed.”
Dagg is more an author than she realizes. Her characters are chaotic and human and perhaps this is what makes her story so tangible; whether debating the proposals of love, feeling the pain of a swollen ankle, or reports of a curling iron with the Ute Indians, each experience makes us more eager to know how the story will end.
I recommend this book to any young adult reader and particularly to mothers, women, families, and parents. The Year We Were Famous is more than a journey to save a farm, it is a journey toward womanhood.
The Year We Were Famous by Carole Estby Dagg