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Writing about history as ordinary people lived it.

The Year We Were Famous

Cover of The Year We Were FamousBuy the Book: AmazonBarnes & NobleIndieBound
Published by: Clarion, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
ISBN13: 978-0618999835

Grade Level: 7-9

Overview

The Year We Were Famous is based on the true story of Clara Estby and her suffragist mother, Helga, who walked 4,000 miles from their farm in Mica Creek, Washington, to New York City in 1896 in a heroic attempt to win $10,000 that would save the family’s farm and prove women could do it.

Equipped only with satchels containing compass and maps, first-aid supplies, journals, pistol, and a curling iron, they headed east along the railroad tracks. In 232 days, they wore out thirty-two pairs of shoes, crossed mountains, deserts, and plains, and survived a highwayman attack, flash floods, blizzards, and days with out food and water. For a year, they were famous as they met governors and mayors, camped with Indians, and visited the new president-elect himself, William McKinley.

They intended to write a book about their adventures, but because of the way their trip ended, their journals were burned. Fortunately, newspapers across the country reported on their travels, and The Year We Were Famous is based on those articles, with imagination filling the gaps between known facts.


Praise

“The journey in itself is amazing, but Dagg’s tender portrayal of a mother and daughter who learn to appreciate and forgive each other makes it unforgettable.”
Publishers Weekly, starred review

“Pulse-pounding encounters—outlaws! rattlers! flash floods!—will leave readers invigorated and inspired by the determination of two courageous pioneer women.”
—Horn Book

"Truth can be stranger than fiction in this outsized adventure that encompasses women’s suffrage, mother-daughter relationships, economic catastrophe, the presidential race that put McKinley in the White House, and 8 million steps over four thousand miles…this is a page-turner.”
—Voya

Winner, Will Rogers Medallion
Winner, Sue Alexander Award from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators
Winner, WILLA award from Women Writing the West
Selected by the American Library Association for its annual Amelia Bloomer List of feminist fiction


Backstory

This photograph of Clara and Helga Estby was taken in Minneapolis on their way home in 1897.

My first memory of Great-aunt Clara was from 1950: I sat beside her on the edge of her bed, looking down as she struggled to draw stockings over gnarled and vein-roped feet. I didn’t know it then, but fifty-four years before those feet had trod 4,000 miles in a trek with her mother from Spokane, Washington to New York City.

My last meeting with Clara was at Sacred Heart Hospital in Spokane. I tiptoed behind my aunt Thelma (my father’s sister) and the nun who was breaking hospital rules to let me in to see Clara one last time before she died. I found out later that of all her nieces and nephews, I had been the only child brought in to see her. It was as if Aunt Thelma knew that someday I would want to write about her and wanted to make sure I had a clear memory of having met her. 

I didn’t discover details about the walk until I was grown, when two articles from Minneapolis newspapers that had been salvaged from a burn barrel started circulating among family members. When I learned that the journals which Clara and Helga had intended to turn into a book had been destroyed, I vowed that someday I would tell their story for them.


Discussion & Activity Guide

The Year we were Famous is based on the true story of Clara Estby and her suffragist mother, Helga, who walked 4,000 miles from their farm in Mica Creek, Washington to New York City in 1896 in a heroic attempt to win $10,000 that would save the family’s farm and prove women could do it. For a year, they were famous as they met governors and mayors, camped with Indians, and visited the new president-elect himself, William McKinley.

In a starred review, Publishers Weekly called the book “unforgettable.” Honors include the Sue Alexander Award for most promising new manuscript, 2012 WILLA award, Will Rogers Medallion, and a place on the American Library Association’s 2012 Amelia Bloomer list of best feminist fiction.

WALKING IN CLARA’S SHOES

Clara and Helga each had only seven pounds of equipment, including the weight of the satchel. What would you pack in a satchel for a seven-month trek?

Clara felt obligated to help her family but also wanted to pursue her own life. Helga knew her neighbors thought her place was at home but left the family for days to attend suffrage meetings in Spokane and for a year to walk across the country to save the farm and prove women could do it. Mrs. Bryan wanted to help her husband campaign but also wanted to be at home with her children. How do you balance obligations to others and to yourself?

Is there any cause for which you would walk 4,000 miles?

Clara had to work as a servant in Spokane in exchange for room and board so she could go on to high school. How would that have affected Clara’s relationship with her high school classmates? Would you have been willing to do the same?

How do the people Clara meets change her understanding of her parents and perception of the world and her possibilities?

POLITICS, THE ECONOMY, AND MEDIA COVERAGE

In the Panic of 1893, people were losing homes, unemployment was above 10% for six years in a row, and 7 of 10 banks failed in Spokane. How is that situation like today? How is it different?

The liquor lobby was reportedly against giving the vote to women because it might lead to prohibition. Does big business affect elections and legislation today?

President McKinley ran his presidential campaign while seldom leaving home. Compare his style to election campaigns now.

SOCIETY AND CHANGING ROLES

How many generations back do you have to go to find the first woman in your family who might have voted in 1920?

Helga knew her neighbors thought her place was at home but left the family for days at a time to attend suffrage meetings in Spokane and for a year to walk across the country to prove women could do it, as well as to win money to save the family’s farm. Can you think of other people who have gone against public opinion to effect social change?

Clara and Helga knocked on the doors of strangers for a place to stay, and were even admitted to the president-elect’s home. Could they have done that today?

How did Mrs. William (Ida) McKinley) and Mrs. William Jennings (Mary) Bryan represent traditional and new roles of women?

How do the bicycle craze and the bicycle skirt symbolize the New American Woman?

What were Helga’s stated motives for the walk? Why else do you think she wanted to walk? Why do you think Clara was willing to go?

The author could only find a dozen or so newspaper articles about Clara and Helga’s walk across the country. If a mother and daughter attempted to walk across the country today, what kind of coverage do you think they’d get?

Were you surprised by Ma’s revelation in Pennsylvania? What clues had Clara had that this might be true? If you had never met one of your parents, what would you want to know about him or her?

WRAP-UP AND REACTIONS

What was your favorite scene of the book?

Do you think the ending was sad or hopeful?

How does Emily Dickinson’s Poem, “Fame is a bee,” describe The Year We Were Famous? (preface)

Fame is a bee.

It has a song—

It has a sting—

Ah, too, it has a wing.

Drawing of Dagg's great aunt armed

This is how Clara and Helga Estby were depicted in the New York World when they arrived after walking across the country.

WRITING ACTIVITIES

Examine the pictures that appeared in the New York World before and after the walk. Make up your own story that would explain Clara and Helga’s transition from proper Victorian ladies in black silk dresses to gun and dagger-toting adventuresses. (PDFs of photos available from the author.)

Pretend you are a journalist interviewing Clara and Helga and write a newspaper article describing their trek.

Interview your parents or grandparents for the most exciting or funniest event in their lives.

Take one of these newspaper quotes and expand it into a fully developed scene:

“They [Native Americans they encountered in Utah] took our small satchel and went through it, but oddly enough the only thing they could make use of was our curling iron. This puzzled them very much and we had to demonstrate its use.”
—Minneapolis Tribune, June 2, 1897, p. 4

“At one time we got into a cloudburst, and it was only by holding onto shrubs that we escaped with our lives”
—Minneapolis Tribune, June 2, 1897, p. 4

“…the only man who molested them was a LeGrand (sic), Ore., dude…they shot him in the leg. They were not arrested for it."
—New York World, December 25, 1896, p. 3

Re-write a scene as a script and act it out.

Essay prompt: Why I would/would not like to have lived in 1896.

Re-write one scene from Helga’s point of view instead of Clara’s.

Find examples in the book of how Clara’s background on the farm and her love of reading affect her word choices and images. 

GEOGRAPHY and ART

Draw a map of their route, noting where various episodes took place.

Create a cover for the book.

Choose a quote from the novel and draw a sketch or cartoon to illustrate it. 

MUSIC

Compose a song about Clara and Helga’s trek.

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