Goodyarn gets a good deal

Published on Thu, Jan 13, 2005 by Jack Kintner

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Good yarn gets a good deal

By Jack Kintner

Sometimes a book that takes a while to finish, like a meal cooked slowly, is best. Spokane author Linda Hunt, whose mother Evelyn Christensen lives in Birch Bay Village, worked on her non-fiction book, Bold Spirit, for 20 years before finally publishing it in May of 2003 with the University of Idaho Press.

The following month Hunt began to make book presentations, including one at Village Books in Fairhaven and another in Blaine, and the book became a regional success with over 20,000 copies sold. It has also earned critical acclaim: the 2004 Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association award, the 2004 Washington State Book Award and the national 2004 Willa Cather Literary Award. When the state of Idaho abruptly closed its university press last year in a cost-saving move the press was allowed to continue printing Hunt’s book for the time being because it was making money for them.

But a new publisher would be needed, and she’s found one in Anchor Books, a division of Random House, which just released their edition on Tuesday to bookstores throughout the country.

Though this kind of recognition and success is something most writers only dream about, Hunt says she’s “mostly thrilled at the amount of reader interest.” The 64-year-old former professor of English at Whitworth College in Spokane and her husband Jim, a Whitworth history professor, have traveled extensively throughout the U.S. and Norway researching the book. Hunt said that the interest grows out of people identifying with Estby’s story and becoming inspired by her courage.

It’s about Helga Estby’s efforts to save her farm with prize money from a 3,500-mile walk from Spokane to New York City. Estby made the walk along with her oldest child, daughter Clara, but the $10,000 prize turned out to be a promotional scam and was never awarded. She returned home to find that two of her children had died of a diphtheria epidemic and that many in her community were disgusted by her leaving her family. Her story was silenced, ignored, and not shared outside the immediate family. “She broke a code,” Hunt said, “in leaving home. Even though it was to save her home, her Norwegian community saw it as abandonment.”

Helga and her husband lost their farm in 1901 and moved to Spokane. He found work as a carpenter and died in a building accident in 1913. Helga Estby lived another 33 years and was active in area politics, campaigning for women’s suffrage and the rights of the poor.

In her later years Helga Estby wrote a considerable volume of material, almost a hand-written book, about her long walk, but following her death in 1946 her two daughters burned it. The story was preserved by a daughter-in-law who managed to save her scrapbook and some newspaper stories published about Estby during her trip, and who passed it on to her daughter. That woman’s son, Estby’s great-great-grandson, is Doug Bahr who, as an eighth-grader in Wilbur, Washington, wrote a seven-page report, “Grandma Walks from Coast to Coast,” as an assignment from his teacher, Donna Roloff.

“I got an A from Mrs. Roloff,” said Bahr, now 33 and a career firefighter in Woodinville, Washington, “though there wasn’t much to go on beside a couple of lengthy newspaper articles and some sketchy family stories. I think I won a green tee-shirt at History Day.”
Hunt’s husband Jim, a contest judge, read Bahr’s paper and brought it home for his wife to read.

“I was bleary-eyed from correcting student essays,” Linda Hunt said, “So that was the last thing I wanted to do, read another word.” But she did, and it not only formed the core of her Ph.D. research and dissertation but ultimately lead to her telling the story in much more detail than the present family had ever known about in her book.
Hunt has since come upon an account written by Estby and published in a Scandinavian newspaper of an incident in which she and her daughter visited a mine in Park City and Cripple Creek, Utah. “The detail is so vivid and complete,” said Hunt wistfully, “one can only imagine what the original was like.”

But Hunt’s way of telling a story that was never told, that had been effectively silenced by a misguided family and community, has a speculative and imaginative quality that has drawn readers like few other northwest pioneer biographies have. One, Kelly Adams, is a Marysville private investigator who has found out several things about the family Estby grew up in.

“I call it a rag rug approach,” said Hunt, referring to the pieces of the story that are being found here and there by readers and that have been returned to her, like the rugs in Norwegian farmhouses that are made of bits and pieces of fabric sometimes contributed by friends. Recently, she and Pat Stein from the Whitworth drama faculty made a two-week lecture tour along the route that Estby followed. Hunt read from her book while Stein did dramatic presentations of the material.

Hunt’s only northwest appearance thus far, after the Anchor Books edition came out earlier this week, is planned for Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park the evening of February 2.