The Year We Were Famous
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The Year We Were Famous

3.4 5
by Carole Estby Dagg

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With their family home facing foreclosure, seventeen-year-old Clara Estby and her mother, Helga, need to raise a lot of money fast—no easy feat for two women in 1896. Helga wants to tackle the problem with her usual loud and flashy style, while Clara favors a less showy approach. Together they come up with a plan to walk the 4,600 miles from Mica Creek,


With their family home facing foreclosure, seventeen-year-old Clara Estby and her mother, Helga, need to raise a lot of money fast—no easy feat for two women in 1896. Helga wants to tackle the problem with her usual loud and flashy style, while Clara favors a less showy approach. Together they come up with a plan to walk the 4,600 miles from Mica Creek, Washington, to New York City—and if they can do it in only seven months, a publisher has agreed to give them $10,000. Based on the true story of the author’s great-aunt and great-grandmother, this is a fast-paced historical adventure that sets the drama of Around the World in Eighty Days against an American backdrop during the time of the suffragist movement, the 1896 presidential campaign, and the changing perception of “a woman’s place” in society.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Debut author Dagg writes a captivating story about the determination of a mother and daughter, who in 1896 walked from Washington State to New York City. Bright, hard-working 17-year-old Clara dreads settling down with the steady but lackluster boy wooing her. Inspired by Nellie Bly's trip around the world, Clara's free-spirited but unreliable mother suggests that they walk nearly 4,000 miles to save their farm from foreclosure (a publisher offers them a ,000 advance if they make it in seven months) and bring attention to the suffragist movement. Basing her story on the real-life journey her great-aunt and great-grandmother undertook, Dagg masterfully recreates the wild adventures and hardships the women faced, including encounters with Native Americans, a harrowing escape from a raging flood, and a frightening scuffle with a menacing attacker. The pages go by quickly, as the two must continually find food and shelter, relying on each other and the kindness of strangers to survive. 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. Ages 12–up. (Apr.)
From the Publisher
Winner of the SCBWI Sue Alexander Award for Most Promising Manuscript

"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

"Readers will enjoy the feminist adventures."—Kirkus Reviews

Children's Literature - Margaret Orto
In the spring of 1896, in an effort to save the family farm in Mica Creek, Washington, seventeen-year old Clara Estby sets off with her suffragist mother Helga on a 4,600 mile walk across America. Helga has been promised $10,000 by a New York publisher if she completes the trek from Washington to New York City in seven months time, a sum that would not only save the farm, but also secure the futures of the eight Estby children. Clara and Helga also wish to prove that two women can rise to such a challenge. This memorable historic novel is based on the true story of the author's great-aunt and great-grandmother. The story is packed with adventure including surviving a flash flood as well as a blizzard in the Blue Mountains of Oregon and suffering from heat stroke in the lava fields of Idaho. The historical details are fascinating and include meetings with governors, a group of Ute Indians, suffragists, and president-elect McKinley and his wife in their home. The physical journey is enhanced by the emotional journey that Clara embarks upon as she and her mother travel across country. Like so many teens, she struggles between loyalty to family and the need to create her own life. The author draws the characters of Clara and Helga with care and nuance, especially as they resolve their complicated mother-daughter relationship. Letters to and from loved ones at home, a journalistic piece that Clara sends off for possible publication, and Helga's reports to the publisher who is sponsoring them on their cross-country adventure, add interest and texture to the narrative. This delightful and multi-faceted book raises awareness on such diverse topics as women's rights and issues, late nineteenth century America, mental-health, and mother-daughter relations. Reviewer: Margaret Orto
ALAN Review - Elizabeth Self
In this historical fiction, Carole Estby Dagg imagines the 1896 cross-country trek of her great-aunt and great-great-grandmother, Clara and Helga Estby, from Mica Creek, Washington, to New York City in an attempt to raise money to save their family farm. Shy, 17-year-old Clara and her bold, suffragette mother leave behind father Ole, seven younger siblings, and Clara's presumptive fiance. They face hazardous weather, dangerous travel conditions, Clara's indecision about her future, and the truth about Helga's past, all while trying to meet their seven-month deadline. The Year We Were Famous weaves together facts and artifacts from Clara and Helga's actual 4,600 mile trek with imagined conversations, journal entries, and characters met along the way. The result is a compelling story about what is possible for girls and women, and one historical journey that helped make it so. Reviewer: Elizabeth Self
VOYA - Mary Arnold
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 a million steps over four thousand miles as Clara and her indomitable Norwegian mother, Helga, walk across the United States from Washington state to New York City to win a wager, save the family farm, and prove that women can be as resourceful and successful as men. With only $5 apiece, two rain ponchos, and a gun, Clara and Helga must rely on one another and the kindness of strangers as they record their encounters with poisonous snakes, highwaymen and hobos, a flash flood, deadly blizzards, and a marvelous meeting with a Native American tribe. Although mother and daughter do not always see eye to eye, with Clara determined not to follow in her mother's footsteps by choosing marriage and family over a career, the center of the story is how this journey reveals secrets of the human heart that allow the two women to forgive, understand, and appreciate one another. Based on the Nellie-Bly—like feat of the author's great-great grandmother and great aunt, this is a page-turner that, as the author says, completes Clara and Helga's dream of publishing their own account of an unbelievably heroic quest. Reviewer: Mary Arnold
School Library Journal
Gr 6–10—Threatened with the loss of their family farm, Helga Estby hatches a highly unusual plan to walk from her small town near Spokane, WA, to New York City to earn a purse of $10,000 offered by an interested New York publisher. It is 1896 when Helga and her shy, 17-year-old daughter, Clara, start out on an unthinkable quest: two women alone, crossing thousands of miles with only $10 and the clothes on their backs. They confront a would-be attacker, Indians, flash floods, treacherous terrain, injury, and deprivation as they make their way across the nation. On their journey they share tales of their adventure with incredulous townspeople, protest for the right to vote, and experience the kindness of strangers. Foiled and disappointed at their destination, the women are not awarded the promised money, but a letter from home tells them that the sale of farm equipment has stayed the loss of their property for the coming year. Helga and Clara decide to spend that time writing a book from the copious journals they kept while traveling. Family secrets are revealed along the way, and Clara blossoms from a quiet, unsure girl into a confident adventurer and writer-in-training. Based on a true (if sketchy) account of the author's great-aunt and great-grandmother, this is an engaging and emotionally compelling tale. Fully realized characters and vivid descriptions of the natural world and physical challenges on their journey capture readers' empathy and attention and make for a very satisfying read.—Karen Elliott, Grafton High School, WI
Kirkus Reviews
In danger of losing their farm and inspired by Nellie Bly's round-the-world feat, 18-year-old Clara Estby and her Norwegian immigrant mother, Helga, decide to walk from Mica Creek, near Spokane, Wash., to New York City, a projected May-to-December journey. A publisher has promised them $10,000 if they reach their destination on time. With just the clothes on their backs, a pistol and little else, the women must rely on the kindness of strangers and their own tenacity. When not lost in Idaho's lava fields, showing Indians in Utah how to use a curling iron, meeting just-elected President William McKinley or uncovering family secrets, they are avoiding rattle snakes, mountain blizzards and assailants. Quiet yet snappy Clara uses the time to decide whether she should marry Erick (who's already building their marriage bed) or try to make it on her own as a writer. Meanwhile, theatrical Helga uses each stop to promote her suffragist beliefs. Incredibly, the nearly 4,000-mile journey depicted in this debut is based on an actual trek taken by the author's great-aunt and great-grandmother to save their farm. Clara's first-person narration starts off strong with lively descriptions ("I was as jumpy as a colt smelling cougar scat") but rushes toward the end, as if trying to hurry up along with the women. Readers will enjoy the feminist adventures but crave more details. (author's note) (Historical fiction. 12 & up)

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.00(d)
950L (what's this?)
Age Range:
12 Years

Read an Excerpt


Fame is a bee.

It has a song —

It has a sting —

Ah, too, it has a wing.

— Emily Dickinson, "Fame is a bee"

The first seventeen years and three months of my life were so ordinary, they would not be worth the telling. And last May when I came home from high school in Spokane to help

Ma, I thought fate had yanked me back to Mica Creek and I would be stuck there on the farm, helping out one more time and one more time until I was buried in the Mica Creek cemetery alongside my brother Henry. I had prayed that I would find a way to get out of Mica Creek. I forgot to stipulate that I would like to get out of Mica Creek without the constant company of my mother and by some means other than my own two feet.

But then, because of Ma, I was briefly famous. Sketches of us appeared in the New York World twice: our "before" picture in black silk dresses with leg-o’-mutton sleeves; and our "after" picture in ankle-baring skirts and brandishing guns and daggers. Because of the way our adventure ended, we couldn’t talk about it afterward. But I kept my journal. Sometimes, late at night, I would rummage through to the bottom of my hope chest and find my journal. I would read it and remind myself of that life-changing year.


Mica Creek

February 28, 1896

I arranged a dozen winter-blooming Johnny-jump-ups in a tall pill bottle and set them on a tray along with three biscuits and coffee in Ma’s best teacup. As if it might bite, I took a deep breath and lifted the letter by one corner and laid it across the top of the tray.

I nudged open the door to Ma and Pa’s bedroom with my knee. "God morgen, Ma! Good morning!" I crossed the room to hold the tray close enough for her to smell hot biscuits and coffee.

Ma groaned and turned to face the wall. "No breakfast. Sleep."

I set the tray on the bedside table and tapped one corner of the envelope against Ma’s hand, the one clutching the bedclothes as protection against the real world. "It’s another letter from the treasurer. Do you want me to read it to you?"

Ma drew up her knees as if she were making herself a smaller target for bad news.

With the knife from the tray, I slit open the envelope. The treasurer’s seal glared out from the top of the letter. It reminded me of the eye of a dead fish. "You are hereby notified that on January 2, 1897, the property in township . . ."

Eyes still closed, Ma flung her arm to brush the unwelcome words away and instead bumped the tray, spilling the coffee and soaking the biscuits. She covered her ears.

"Ma, you have to listen!"

As if in league with my intent to rouse Ma from bed today, Marmee jumped on the bed to lick Ma’s cheek and purr into her ear. Ma swiped Marmee’s paw away from her face.

I lifted the cat off the bed so I’d have a place to sit. "Refusing to listen to this letter isn’t going to make it disappear. Since Pa doesn’t read English, he leaves all the business to you, and we are a sheriff’s auction away from losing this house and everything in it."

Ma still played possum, so I crossed the room and jerked the window shade cord, letting the shade snap to the top, and opened the window as far as it would go. She turned her back to the light and pulled the quilt over her head. "Cold," she said.

"Refreshing," I countered.

She forced a cough. "I can’t get up," she said. "I have consumption."

"Half of Mica Creek has a cough this winter, Ma. I don’t think it’s consumption. And even if it is, fresh air and exercise are the best things for it."

"And it’s not just consumption. You don’t understand what it’s like to have a sensitive spirit."

I pictured Henry in his coffin: eleven years old, hands gnarled like an old man’s by the childhood arthritis that had spread through his body and stopped his heart. "We all miss Henry," I said, smoothing the coverlet over Ma’s shoulder, "but keeping busy is the best cure for sadness. You have to get out of bed sometime. Are you going to wait until the farm is auctioned off and Pa carries you off on the mattress?"

Ma burrowed deeper into the covers. So much for rousing her today.

I carried the puddled tray with soggy biscuits back to the kitchen so I could get on with the rest of my chores — more accurately, Ma’s chores, which she had been leaving to me for the last two months. But first I’d drink what was left in her cup. She always said coffee would stunt my growth, but I didn’t care. I was already taller than half the boys my age.

Three loaves of bread dough had risen an inch above the rim of their pans; while they baked, I’d scrub the sink and the table, spot clean the floor, and refill the wood box. By the time everyone else was out of bed and had run through their chores, the bread would be ready.

Hot air from the oven flushed my cheeks as I slid the first two pans into the wood stove. Making room for the third pan, I burned my knuckles.

"Uff da!" I let the oven door slam and blew on my hand as I crossed the room to put the backs of my burned fingers against the ice in the corner of the window. The heat of my fingers melted through the frost. Past the orchard, dormant wheat fields were tucked under six inches of powdery snow. I felt like the winter wheat, holed up and hibernating, waiting for my time to sprout. If you planted wheat, you got wheat, but what was I meant to grow into?

I splayed the palm of my good hand against the frost on the window. I was seventeen years old, but lye soap and kitchen, laundry, and garden chores had given me the hands of a forty-year-old. Piece by piece my parents’ farm in Mica Creek was turning me into someone I did not want to be.

I scratched my initial in the thinning ice toward the middle of the pane. C for Clara. C for clever? Clever enough to stay at the top of my high school classes, even while working at least twenty hours a week for my room and board in Spokane, but not clever enough to think of a way to save the farm. Ice collected under my fingernail as I sketched a kindergarten-style oblong house on the window, then huffed on the frost and wiped it out.

I looked back at the kitchen: the water pump handle where our hands had worn off the red paint; the marks on the door frame where Marmee scratched to be let out; our heights recorded each year on our birthdays on the wall next to Ma and Pa’s bedroom . . . If we didn’t get money soon, we’d have to leave it all behind. Even though I wanted to leave Mica Creek and go away to college, I had always assumed this house would be here forever, to come back to.

It was quiet . . . all I could hear was the ticking of the regulator clock. Time was running out.


Meet the Author

Carole Estby Dagg has two children, two grandchildren, a husband, and a bossy cat. She splits her writing time between her study in Everett, Washington and a converted woodshed on San Juan Island.

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The Year We Were Famous 3.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I got bored to tears reading this
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
monksbread More than 1 year ago
This book was well written for her first novel. I liked the story of how a mother Helga and her daughter Clara Estby walked from Washington State to New York City in the 1800's. It is a story of determinatiin and perseverance. Clara was trying to make up her mind if she wanted to settle down with her boyfriend or find another. In the time where cell phones were not even dreamed about and all you had was pen and paper to get messages to your loved ones while you are in the wilderness worrying about where you next meal was coming from. It is a remarkable story of love of family and a determination to suceed. Hope the author writes some more she has a great talent.