Back in the hardscrabble past, our grandparents walked barefoot 10 miles in the snow to get to school on time. Sound like a joke? Not for New Yorker editor Dorothy Wickenden, whose grandmother Dorothy Woodruff, with her best friend Rosamond Underwood, broke trail on horseback in a blizzard to get to their teaching post at the rural one-room schoolhouse in Elkhead, Colorado.
Nothing Daunted tells the delightful true story of how Dorothy and Rosamond, two well-bred Smith College graduates, lit out for the frontier in 1916 to work as schoolteachers rather than do the expected thing and marry. Little did they know that idealistic Ferry Carpenter, the lawyer and rancher who masterminded the building of the Elkhead school, hoped that importing schoolteachers would provide wives for the local ranchers and cowboys. (He requested a photo with each job application.)
Dorothy and Rosamond embrace the hardships of mountain life with irrepressible good humor. One of the first lessons they learn is that wearing spurs on horseback reduces their commute time to school by 15 minutes. Their pupils, the ragtag children of local ranchers and miners, charm and frustrate in equal measure; of maintaining order in the classroom, Dorothy writes, “my boys . . . say such funny things—but they are regular imps of Satan, too.”
Ferry Carpenter is a charismatic figure, a man of all trades drawn to the egalitarian West, able and willing to fill in as a Domestic Science teacher when it becomes clear that neither Dorothy nor Rosamond can cook. Ferry and Bob Perry, the son of a mine owner, engage in a friendly rivalry for the affections of Rosamond, but it’s hard for Ferry to compete after Bob endures a kidnapping and bravely escapes his assailants.
Nothing Daunted began life as a 2009 New Yorker article, after Wickenden fortuitously discovered her grandmother’s Elkhead letters. Scrupulously researched, it is both an entertaining and an edifying read, bringing early 20th-century Colorado to vivid life.
A detailed study of two spirited and privileged young women who unexpectedly became a small part of the history of the American West.
Rosamund Underwood and Dorothy Woodruff, both Smith College graduates, spent their 20s traveling to Europe and Manhattan and pouring tea for suffragettes at home in Auburn, N.Y. Nearing 30, they were becoming restless and, longing to do useful and interesting work, applied to become teachers in the small community of Elkhead, Colo. New Yorker executive editor Wickenden, Woodruff's granddaughter, relates their experiences with a vivid, gossipy flair, and readers get an excellent sense of what everyday life was like, not only for the privileged and highly educated, but for the mine worker, the homesteader, the elementary-school teacher. However, readers expecting a straightforward, linear narrative will be baffled by the sinuous curve of the story as it makes switchbacks and loops, like the much-discussed Moffat Road Railroad. In fact, the momentous first day of school for the young teachers doesn't arrive until halfway through the book. The earlier material covers their journey to Elkhead, their childhood and college years and their extensive domestic and international travel. The author's frequent diversions into local and national history demand careful attention, and they might delight one reader but bore another. Wickenden defers the discussion of the women's marriages until two-thirds of the way through the book, which both prioritizes their accomplishments and entices the reader. We know at the outset that Dorothy has children, and this knowledge pulls us gently through the narrative's many turns.
An absorbing maze of a book—readers may well, like Woodruff and Underwood, find their hearts lost to the West.Copyright Kirkus 2011 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.
Wickenden (executive editor, The New Yorker) shares the story of her grandmother Dorothy Woodruff, who, along with close personal friend Rosamond Underwood, spent nine months teaching at a remote settlement school in northwestern Colorado in the early 20th century. This highly personalized and meticulously researched account is more than a simple family history: it tells a great backstory about American development in those years, an "alternative western," in Wickenden's words. These rich and well-educated young society women, tired of social conventions and frustrated by suffrage work, came face to face with another America in the years before World War I--one that was poor, diverse, remote, lacking in modern conveniences, occasionally violent, and yet spectacularly beautiful and "new." Although far from being a scholarly account, the story here adds to our understanding of the complexity of women's experiences in presuffrage America. As college students today do transformative volunteer work worldwide, so, too, did these two young women. Their lovingly preserved letters richly demonstrate how in seeking to assist others they also changed themselves. VERDICT Recommended for general readers interested in the development of the American West, teachers, and those seeking contributions by women to history. [See Prepub Alert, 12/20/10.]--Marie Marmo Mullaney, Caldwell Coll., NJ[Page 87]. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
On July 24, 1916, the Syracuse Daily Journal printed the headline: "Society Girls Go to Wilds of Colorado." The two young women were Dorothy Woodruff and Rosamond Underwood, recent graduates of Smith College who, in order to defy their family's expectation of marriage, sought work in the small town of Hayden, Colo. Woodruff was the grandmother of New Yorker executive editor Wickenden, who herself becomes a central character in an informative and engaging narrative. Using letters from her grandmother, newspaper articles, and interviews with descendants, Wickenden retells how Woodruff and Underwood traveled to the newly settled state of Colorado to teach at a ramshackle grade school. The book offers a wide cross-section of life in the American West, but the core of the story is the girls' slow adaptation to a society very different from the one in which they were raised, and their evolution from naïve but idealistic and open-minded society girls to strong-willed and pragmatic women who later married and raised families in the midst of the Great Depression. Wickenden brings to life two women who otherwise might have been lost to history and who took part in creating the modern-day West. Photos. (June)[Page ]. Copyright 2010 PWxyz LLC