I’m excited to share a new feature around here called Classroom Connections. The plan is to highlight new historical fiction that would work beautifully in the classroom. If you are a teacher, home-schooling mama, librarian, or avid reader of historical fiction, welcome!
Book: THE YEAR WE WERE FAMOUS by Carole Estby Dagg
Setting: America, 1896
Age range: twelve and up — would work perfectly with an eighth-grade US history course
Please tell us about your book.
One day in May, 1896, Clara Estby and her mother packed satchels with maps, compass, canteens, a pistol and a curling iron. They strode east along the railroad tracks, determined to walk 4,000 miles to New York City by their November 30 deadline to win a $10,000 bet which would save the family’s farm.
Since Helga Estby was a suffragist, they were also out to prove what women alone could do, as they battled blizzard, bandits, flash flood and days without food or water, sometimes walking nearly fifty miles at a stretch.
What inspired you to write this story?
Great-aunt Clara and Great-grandma Helga meant to write a book, but because of the way their trip ended, all their travel journals were burned and they agreed never to talk about the trip again. I met Clara for the last time in 1950 as she lay dying in Sacred Heart Hospital. Forty years later, when I read two newspaper articles that had been saved from the burn barrel that had destroyed all their other records, I vowed that I would tell their story for them.
Could you share how you conducted your research? Since I am a retired librarian, I started with about six million words of background reading, including biographies of people they met, places they passed through, frontier treatments for blisters, and the eating habits of cougars. From the Internet I found details I needed for various scenes, such as the elevation of the pass through the Blue Mountains and the history of Underwood typewriters.
I drove part of the route with my daughter, poking in at little history museums along the way, studied old railroad maps to work out a plausible day-by-day itinerary for the whole 232-day trek, put on white gloves to turn the fragile pages of women’s magazines of the 1890’s, and scrolled through microfilms of newspapers which chronicled their walk.
I found patterns for clothing of the 1890’s and sewed a Gibson Girl shirtwaist and Victorian under-drawers. I prowled antique stores to find items, such as a curling iron, that were similar to the ones they carried. I bought reproduction Victorian shoes and carpetbag. I even went on eBay to buy period postcards of people they met and places they passed through.
Details from those cards—such as one of Mrs. William McKinley in her rocker—found their ways into various scenes. Ninety-eight per-cent of my research never made it directly into the book, but helped pull me into each scene as I wrote.
What are some special challenges associated with fictionalizing a true story?
I originally intended to write non-fiction, but I couldn’t find enough verifiable facts to work with. Newspaper articles often disagreed on details, such as how many shoes they wore out or how many miles they had walked. Articles mentioned in passing that they had to shoot a man, demonstrated the use of their curling iron to Native Americans they met, encountered a blizzard in the Blue Mountains, nearly died when they got lost in the Snake River Lava Fields, and were almost swept away by a flash flood in the Rockies.
Those brief facts hardly conveyed what it must have been like to walk through a blizzard in spring clothing or show Native Americans how to use a curling iron. If I was going to bring readers into the adventure, I’d have to fill in the missing details with imagination. The hardest part was putting words and thoughts to Clara and Helga.
I had twenty-nine rejections on the book in its original variations of a straight adventure story. My acquiring editor said that without Clara and Helga’s feelings added to the adventure, the readers wouldn’t care about them. But how did I know what Clara thought when she was seventeen years old?
To try to get into Clara’s head, I took a year off from writing and immersed myself in the 1890’s. For that year I read only what Clara might have read for school, like the classics, or dime novels and popular literature of the era that might have passed from hand to hand. I read period newspapers and women’s magazines and diaries of Victorian women.
After that year I was ready to start over and add heart to the story. By then I had decided that although I didn’t know what Clara and Helga thought, I felt I could use them to represent all the New American Women of the era — bold enough to demand the vote and take part in affairs outside the home.
What topics does your book touch upon that would make it perfect fit for the social studies classroom?
- Women’s suffrage; the movement itself and the price paid by people around anyone obsessed with a cause.
- Changing women’s roles, using the contrast between Mrs. William Jennings Bryan, who was an attorney herself and often accompanied her husband on the campaign trail, and Mrs. William McKinley, who was a more traditional woman—aside from daring to cut her hair.
- Contrasting campaign styles of Bryan, who covered thousands of miles, and McKinley, who ran his campaign from his front porch. Compare to campaigns of today.
- Period of transition for Native Americans, some of whom still roamed and some of whom were thoroughly brought into the white man’s world, like Luke Fletcher.
- The Financial Panic of 1893, compared to the Great Depression and the current economy. Contrast 1893, when the government did not intervene, to 1930 and 2011.
- Bicycle craze of the 1890’s, and how it influenced women’s clothing and women’s feelings of independence.
- Contrasting reporting styles of the New York Times and New York World; compare accounts of Clara and Helga’s trek.
- Changed levels of trust and security—think of walking right up to the president-elect’s door and being invited in for a visit!
- Acculturation of immigrants – contrast between Clara’s father Olaf, who spoke little English, and his children. Compare to today’s new Americans.
Thank you, Carole, for sharing your story with us. Books like yours make me long for the classroom.