Previously in this series, I have explored biography and autobiography as ways in The Telling of Lives.  Now, I want to turn your attention to fictional autobiography.

Clara Estby, the real-life protagonist in Jane Kirkpatrick’s The Daughter’s Walk, had no understanding of her mother’s farfetched idea to walk across the United States in hopes of winning a $10,000 prize that would save the family farm near Spokane. Helga was a very determined Norwegian immigrant, a believer in women’s right to vote and even to wear the “reform/bicycle dress” that the backers of the contest were putting forth. In near financial ruin after her husband’s disabling accident, the family was in desperate straits. 

In May 1896, mother and daughter set off on a journey of 3500 miles, a multitude of hardships and some kindnesses along the way. Their destination was New York City by December 13. Their route went along railroad tracks. It was to be a test of feminine stamina. It was also seen by Helga as a means to protect Clara from making a mistake in falling for the son of her rich employer. Clara’s plans for college and a life different from the farm literally fell by the wayside. 

The story draws on truth from the many newspaper accounts and records of the day, on interviews with descendants and on interpretation or speculation from those facts to fill in the unknown parts of the story. Two weeks late at their December arrival and losing the challenge, mother and daughter are left to make their way back home nearly penniless. On arrival, desperation greets them. Two of the younger children have died and the family is in quarantine. Helga collapses and Kirkpatrick catches the emotions of grief eloquently and succinctly:

“Grief has many siblings. Anger, isolation, sadness, guilt, and, yes, distraction, avoidance, pretense. I met them all in the weeks that followed. So did our family.”

 Feeling detached from the only family she has known, Clara leaves, assumes another name and is befriended by two older women. They offer her employment and the fulfillment of her college dreams. The women are furriers and have many contacts in New York as well as overseas. As Clara is drawn into the business, she is also drawn to the company’s salesman. Clara moves from bookkeeper to business owner/manager; she seldom turns away from a challenge, including learning to trap and going out by herself into the wintery woods.

Jane Kirkpatrick writes strongly of human relationships in the characters she depicts. The author shows us the attitudes, values and mannerisms of her characters:

            “Design doesn’t interest me,” I said.

            “To humor you: where would we trap?” Franklin asked. He wasn’t scowling now. He  looked more curious, surprised even.

             “I’d buy land. The right kind of land, where I’d trap.”

            “It’s not women’s work. You’re already thin as spaghetti,” Louise said.

             Franklin shook his head.

            “Women’s work is defined by women doing it,” I said.


The issue of Clara’s estrangement from her family is woven throughout the story and explains or accounts for twenty years of silence. This, too, is a source of grief and it seems Clara relies on relentless work to stave off its “siblings.” Reconciliation eventually occurs.

A talented writer like Jane Kirkpatrick takes the tiniest thread of a story and weaves it into a whole with fact and fiction.

* * *

At her website, Susan Vreeland writes on the origin of her book The Forest Lover, a biographic novel of the Canadian artist, Emily Carr. Vreeland poses and answers a question: “Then what are the differences between biography and fiction on a historical person? A biography reports while a novel shows. A biography is read in order to become informed about a person’s life. A novel is read in order to feel what it might have been like to live that life.”   

Do you agree with Vreeland? 

Do you have a preference in form?


Filed under Historical Fiction, Research, Writing

10 responses to “FROM MY READING CHAIR

  1. Insipiring and thought provoking, Arletta. Love Vreeland’s quote.

  2. Thank you, Marlene.
    Vreeland spoke at the Historical Novel Society conference on the background of her many books. She was scheduled to speak on “Clara and Mr. Tiffany” but re-focused her program to what she thought writers would be more interested in. I told her I had hoped to write about Emily Carr and then she came out with her book! Stole my thunder!

  3. This post was wonderful. Thank you so much. I’d forgotten the comments Susan Vreeland made in her novel but I agree with her. I think biography tells what a person did and when but fiction allows us to answer why and to explore the landscape of the mind. I’m glad you liked the book. As always your own writing is clear and graceful with emotion at just the right depth. Thank you. Hope to see you at WWW in October. Warmly Jane
    PS to your reader/comment about hoping to write a book about Emily Carr but Susan did it first…I hope she considers that The Daughter’s Walk as an event was first covered by Linda L. Hunt in Bold Spirit and there is also a young adult novel based on Clara’s trip, The Year we Were Famous by Carole Estby Dagg, a descendant. So I hope she’ll still write the story if Emily Carr is still calling. Jane

  4. Thank you , Jane, for your warm comments…high priase indeed!
    You’ve given me room to stretch and think more about doing a book, at some level, on Emily Carr. Fell in love with her work and story while traveling in British Columbia several years ago.

  5. Now that’s inspiring! Thank you, Arletta!

  6. My preference is always the biographical novel over the straight biography. I just finished BEYOND ALL PRICE by Carolyn Poling Schriber and would recommend it to others who like these well researched stories of strong women in our history.

  7. Hello, Linda,
    Welcome to my blog! Thank you for sharing your thoughts and for recommending this Civil War era novel, BEYOND ALL PRICE. I’ll add it to my list of “to be reads.”

  8. The blog “Women’s Memoirs” discusses this very subject. Fact or fiction is a thin line in memoir because the author is still alive and wants to tell a compelling story without getting sued or alienating her/his family. Memoirists agonize over the effect that memory and interpretation has on “truth.” Some throw up their hands and just call their story a “novel based on true events,” like Jane Kirkpatrick has done. A biography is harder to make compelling than a novel. I read Linda Lawrence Hunt’s well researched narrative, BOLD SPIRIT:Helga Estby’s Forgotten Walk. It was fascinating, but it lacked tension, sub plots, narrative voice, the elements that make a novel interesting. She was limited in the liberties she felt she could take. In many ways, her research paved the way for Jane to write her novel. That’s the debt we novelists owe to biographers and researchers–without them we couldn’t write our stories.

  9. Hi Anne,
    You provide words of wisdom in your comments and I know Jane would agree. The other sources we look to are the journals of the character or contemporaries, letters and museum libraries or exhibits. Docents are very helpful in the latter settings. For my work in the Huachucas I found a delightful family history:MANZANITA COWBOYS AND TWINE PASTURE FENCES by Norine Haverty Dickey.
    Thanks for your input.

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