"The Year We Were Famous"

A Novel Idea: Motherhood


"The Year We Were Famous," was published in 2011, but takes us back to the year 1896. This is a novel that is based on the true story of Helga Etsby, an outspoken suffragist, and her daughter, Clara Etsby, a shy seventeen year old. They embark on a cross-country journey following the railroad tracks from Spokane, Washington to New York, New York to save their farm from debt and desolation. They walked up to forty miles a day for over seven months, wearing out 32 pairs of shoes. They survived a blizzard, flash flood, highway men, and sometimes days without food or water. If they reached New York in time they would win 10,000 dollars! They intended to write about their journey, pooling together both of their accounts of the trip, if they survived, and 115 years later their story is finally told.

A Novel Idea: Motherhood

There are four reoccurring themes of motherhood that we see in "The Year We Were Famous."

  • Mother as an Avoider
  • Mother as the Ruler
  • Mother as the Provider
  • Mother as the Protcetor
We first encounter Helga Etsby, the mother of the story, in bed shirking her responsibilities as a farm wife, and providing for the family. She claims to have consumption, more commonly known as tuberculosis, and a "sensitive spirit" and, therefore, she cannot get out of bed. With this glimpse of Helga's character, we feel almost a sense of resentment from Clara. Clara has wanted to get away from the farm her whole life, go to college, and become something other than a farmwife. With her mother avoiding her responsibility, she cannot go and do all that she wants to do, making us, and Clara, resent Helga, at first.

A little later on in the novel when Clara and Helga are going off on their adventure, Helga's mothering abilities come into question. As a mother, how can you leave all of your other seven children and husband behind while you go walking across the country? We question if Helga is doing this for herself to get away from it all, or if she is doing it for her family. We never get a clear answer from Helga because she herself doesn't know the answer to the question and throughout the novel she goes back and forth between the two.

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Being a mother has its perks! You have little people that you can boss around to do whatever you wish, and they won't question it, or if they do, you can end the argument with "I'm your mother do as I say." There are multiple times in the novel when, against better judgement, Clara goes along with her mother's ideas because she's her mother, and she has the final say.

In order to save time on their journey Helga wants to take a "shortcut" over a lava field. Clara thinks this is a bad idea because of the conditions, but Helga has her mind set on it so "filled with misgivings, I followed Ma toward Minidoka."

They argue again when Helga wants to stop in Utah to march in a suffragist parade, and Clara doesn't want to waste time marching in it, because they are behind schedule. But what Helga says goes, so they stayed and marched in the parade.

One of the many responsibilities of a mother is to provide for your children. Many mothers do whatever they can to best provide for their children, and Helga is no exception (other than the three months that she was in bed with "consumption.")

In the second chapter of the novel Helga is up out of bed and feeling better. In fact, she feels so good, that she decides to start spring cleaning, starting with the ceiling. While she is cleaning the ceiling she starts to come up with ideas to save the farm. She finally gets someone to sponsor her idea to walk across the country so that she can save her family from debt.

During their expedition across the country, there were many times that Helga convinced strangers to house and feed the two of them.

The provider theme is very subtle in the novel just like it is in real life.

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Helga is mostly portrayed as a protector. She is always caring for Clara on the road, making sure that she was not sent to jail for shooting a man in the leg, and ensuring that she got to safety first during a flash flood. She preserved Clara's reputation, even before she was born. Helga found out that she was pregnant out of after her lover left town. In order to provide for Clara, Helga married someone she didn't love so that she would have a roof over her head, and so that the community would not call Clara a bastard.

In today's society, it is very important for mothers to be portrayed as protectors. They feel a strong identity as a mother if they can protect their children.