Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West
- Dorothy Wickenden
- 304 pp.
- Reviewed by Natalie Wexler
- July 14, 2011
From the records of one family’s history, a tale of hard living in the wilds of Colorado in 1916.
Reviewed by Natalie Wexler
Nowadays, 20-somethings yearning for adventure might travel halfway around the world and teach English for a year. Back in 1916, two wealthy young women from the East Coast didn’t have to go that far to encounter the strange and exotic: they found it in a two-room schoolhouse perched on a mountaintop in the wilds of Colorado.
When Dorothy Woodruff set off from her native Auburn, N.Y., for the Elkhead school with her lifelong friend Rosamond (Ros) Underwood, she traveled in time as much as distance. “[T]heir destination felt more like 1870 than 1916,” Dorothy Wickenden remarks in her engaging narrative of the year the two women spent in what was then still a very wild West. Wickenden, the executive editor of The New Yorker, is the granddaughter of that earlier Dorothy, whom she remembers as “white-haired, impeccably attired, and sometimes stern.” Through a combination of letters, oral histories, newspaper clippings and other historical sources, Wickenden has unearthed what she initially thought was “a curious family history” but came to see as “an alternative Western.”
Smith grads who had jointly spent a year on a grand tour of Europe, Dorothy and Ros were seven years out of college and unimpressed by suitors who came their way when they got wind of an intriguing job offer. An unlikely pioneer named Farrington Carpenter Jr. — a Princeton and Harvard Law grad, about their age — was in search of teachers for a school that would serve a community of poor homesteaders in the Rocky Mountains. In fact, teachers were to fulfill a dual purpose. The area suffered from a severe shortage of marriageable young women, and no applicant was to be considered without a photograph. Dorothy and Ros apparently didn’t comply with that requirement, but when Carpenter heard through the grapevine that Ros had been voted the best-looking girl in the Smith junior class, the job was theirs.
It’s striking how little thought was given to this arrangement on either side. Carpenter and his best friend Bob Perry — the son of a wealthy local mine owner — didn’t consider it an obstacle that the young women had no teaching experience or the required state certification. And the women started to worry only after they’d accepted the job. “We knew not the slightest thing about teaching, absolutely nothing,” Dorothy later recalled.
They also knew little or nothing, it seems, about the conditions under which they would be living and working. Lodged with a family of homesteaders, the women had a two-mile horseback ride to the school that took them an hour and a half ― longer in the snow that covered the area from December through March. Their 30 or so students, divided by age into two groups, sometimes arrived half-frozen, wearing little more than rags. During one storm, three brothers “walked three miles from home in snow that was almost up to their necks in some spots.” Life was no easier for the frontier women who somehow juggled arduous household duties and child care with no hired help. Their hard-working hostess, Mrs. Harrison, enjoyed the young women’s company but seemed puzzled as to why they were there, since the jobs were far from lucrative. “You girls aren’t here for the money you can make, are you?” she asked dubiously.
No, they certainly were not. They’d had vague interests in women’s suffrage and social work back East, but they’d longed to find “absorbing and useful work.” Find it they did. What they lacked in teaching experience they made up for in energy and dedication, and while they sometimes found their young charges exasperating, they were clearly fond of them. Years later, one of their former pupils recalled, “I don’t believe there ever was a community that was affected more by two people than we were by those two girls.”
The community affected the “girls” as well. Both fell in love with the physical beauty of the place, and one of them — Ros — fell in love in a more literal sense as well: before the year was out she was engaged to Bob Perry, the wealthy mine owner’s son, and spent the rest of her life out West. (Perry and Carpenter, the Princeton grad who brought the girls to Colorado, had a friendly rivalry going for Ros’s affections, and after Perry’s death she married Carpenter.)
As for Dorothy, years later she drew strength from the example of the supremely competent women of Elkhead. After her husband died during the Depression, she became the sole support of four young children. “That year in Colorado became part of who she was,” her daughter recalled. “She took life by the throat and dealt with it.
The year in Colorado made other impressions on the women too. Bob Perry was kidnapped at gunpoint in October and made a dramatic escape. In happier times, there were house parties and holiday celebrations, and the women visited a bohemian performing-arts camp that later served as an incubator for cultural titans such as Agnes de Mille and Merce Cunningham. But for the most part what comes through is the daily hardship and sacrifice required of those who chose to forge their lives in terrain that now — less than a hundred years later — plays host to vacationers and skiers. (Elkhead is not far from the resort town Steamboat Springs.)
If there’s one thing missing from this entertaining book, it’s a window into the young women’s most intimate thoughts and feelings. The letters home that provide the bulk of the book’s source material most likely put the best face on things, and reminiscences often emphasize the rosy. While Dorothy and Ros seem to have remained preternaturally chipper throughout the year, there must have been moments of despair. But perhaps only a fictional treatment (or an unusually candid diary) could provide such insights. As “an alternative Western,” and an account of one remarkable year in the lives of two remarkable young women, Nothing Daunted succeeds admirably.
Natalie Wexler is the author of A More Obedient Wife: A Novel of the Early Supreme Court. She is currently working on two novels: The Mother-Daughter Show, a contemporary comic novel about mother-daughter relationships, and a historical novel based on the life of the first female magazine editor in the United States.