Let’s just start out with the basic statement: I loved this book.
I love the idea of two women walking cross-country from Washington to New York in 1896. I love the idea of their doing it with no cooking utensils, plans to work for food and lodging along the way, and a bet that–if they do it–will win them $10,000 to save their farm, pay for college, and put the frosting on what may be the biggest adventure (exciting and miserable) of their lives.
I really love that it actually happened.
Okay, no, not exactly as Carole Estby Dagg has written it. The author is very clear in her notes about how much she does know about Helga and Clara (her great-grandmother and great-aunt) and what she doesn’t. Which is nice, because by the end of the book, that’s one thing I was definitely curious about.
What Dagg has done, though, and what I loved is to take the bones of a story that has obviously fascinated her for years and turned it into one that kept me reading through every page–every blister, every gully-washer, every gunshot, and every tedious (for the characters only) mile across the U.S.
In many ways, it’s just a great story told very well. Dagg uses the bet’s deadline to set up and sustain tension, as well as all the physical and emotional obstacles the two women face along the way. She explores the relationship between Helga and Clara, a relationship that only makes their trip more difficult, more challenging. She sets up a love-triangle for Clara, amazingly developed, when you figure that the two men involved never meet each other and are never physically involved in the journey for more than a few hours of time.
But what I really loved about this book was the journey. I mean, think about it. At one point in the story, Clara hits another woman with an accusation: “How many miles a day do you walk? Two miles, three?” It’s a wonderful moment, and the woman totally deserves the hit, but–hey–how many of us walk even that short distance unless it comes under the heading of Exercise?And Clara and Helga, as she says, have walked anywhere from twenty-five to fifty miles every day of their trip. In rain. In snow. In heat.
No, I don’t want to go back, not for real. I don’t miss corsets. I don’t miss long skirts. I don’t miss working on a farm or chopping wood for a piece of bread and a cup of coffee.
Oh, I do love reading about it all, though. Especially when someone like Ms. Dagg does such a wonderful job of catching it all on the page for me–the humdrum and the amazing. The reality.