Book review: “Nothing Daunted,” by Dorothy Wickenden, about two society girls who head West
By Marie Arana,
To many Easterners, the American West seems as remote as the Siberian steppe — a landscape that flat-lines its way to sky, a place where women are inexplicably brave and men are irresistibly drawn to danger. The West, to that way of thinking, grows a different breed altogether: Cheyenne has little in common with Sag Harbor. And yet nothing could be further from the truth. Those gritty, granite-faced Westerners were likely Easterners once. Or, at least, descended from them. If anything can persuade you of this, it will be Dorothy Wickenden’s enchanting family memoir, “Nothing Daunted,” in which two plucky society girls from New York head west for no other reason than to fight off boredom.
Dorothy Woodruff and her closest friend, Rosamond Underwood, were silver-spoon socialites from Auburn, N.Y., who never wore trousers or visited their own kitchens. They were born in the 1880s, during an era of unprecedented industrial boom. Hailing from prominent families, they descended from long lines of successful men, attended the best schools and were doted upon by nursemaids. Dorothy was spirited; Ros, beautiful; both turned out to be passionate participants in a transformative time in America.
But in 1906 they were students at Smith College, where, it was said, some women hoped for an M.A., but more hoped for a M.A.N. “Unlike our neighbor Holyoke ‘over the way,’ ” one student chirped in the yearbook, “we have not troubled our busy heads over the right and wrong of woman suffrage, but are discussing . . . who are the best-looking girls in the class.”
After graduation, Dorothy and Ros were pampered with a year’s grand tour of Europe, where they visited rich relatives, watched Nijinsky and Isadora Duncan shock the bourgeoisie, and trooped through galleries, wincing at Matisse’s garish canvases. On their return, they took up a lady’s typical pursuits: charity work, parties and the rituals of being courted by eligible young men. Little in their coddled experience would have prepared them for a future in the wilds of northwest Colorado.
But New York society picnics and bridge parties soon lost their appeal. Provoked by the suffrage movement, the women longed to make a mark, to seek out their own adventures. When Ros heard that a new friend’s brother was looking to hire two schoolteachers for a tiny homesteading town in the Elkhead Mountains, 200 miles northwest of Denver, she leapt at the chance. It didn’t take much to persuade Dorothy to join her. In July of 1916, the two 29-year-olds — by then believed to be old maids and unmarriageable — made the long journey over the treacherous Rocky Mountains to a breathtakingly new world and home.
Wickenden, who is the executive editor of the New Yorker, knows what it takes to shape a good story. Culling details from a rich trove of family letters, she gives us a delightfully intricate tale.
The brother of Ros’s friend who offered them jobs was Farrington Carpenter, a Princeton graduate, inspired to go west by his professor, Woodrow Wilson. Stumbling onto valuable land at the tender age of 20, Carpenter decided to file a claim for 160 acres under the old Homestead Act of 1862. By 1907, he was a frontiersman and civic organizer, dedicated to bringing American civilization west and educating the region’s children. There was a secondary objective, pressed on him by his pioneering cohort: The West needed spunky, marriageable women. In Elkhead, when he chose to inhabit it, there was not one eligible female in sight. He decided that a pretty schoolteacher might make an excellent wife and mother.
When Dorothy and Ros arrived in Elkhead, they were thrilled by everything they saw: “My dearest family,” Dorothy wrote back, “Can you believe that I am actually far out here in Colorado?” All of it seemed strange and wonderful — filled with peril and possibility. “The schoolhouse stands high on a mountain,” Ros wrote. “It is the Parthenon of Elkhead! You can see it for miles around.” They didn’t know it then, but from the moment they stepped off the train, the women had joined the most powerful currents of American history: “the expulsion of native tribes; the mining of gold, silver, and coal; the building of a network of railroads that linked disparate parts of the country and led to the settlement of the West; the development of rural schools; the entry of immigrants, African-Americans, and women into the workforce and the voting booth; even the origins of modern dance.”
“Nothing Daunted” is the story of brave souls who forfeited the known world of the East to inhabit the West; as they went, they found something meaningful in the bargain. Naturally, such stories are legion — many an American family has one. My own mother’s family did precisely the same thing, moving from Boston to Amherst to Ohio, then Kansas, and ultimately Wyoming, so that my American grandparents ended their days a mere 50 miles from Dorothy Wickenden’s. The road west was built, without a doubt, by Easterners lured there by curiosity and enterprise.
Wickenden lards her book with a good dose of American history. As the story of Dorothy and Ros unfolds, we see women fighting to attend medical school and obliged to listen to lectures from behind curtains. We see the Ute Indians expelled from their lands. We see Carpenter and his best friend, Bob Perry (a graduate of Columbia) — “young fellows with tail feathers blooming” — improvise a new way of life on that fickle prairie. We see milkmen delivering not door to door, but to creeks; pack rats making away with stockings; men meting out rough justice to anyone who would assault their women. We meet Butch Cassidy, Harriet Tubman, Agnes de Mille; we hear how culture and the arts were siphoned west by tireless young visionaries. Mostly, we see the bright, eager children of impoverished homesteaders dashing through wind, snow and rain to a spare stone temple on a distant hill, where two energetic young women will open new worlds for them.
Eventually, there is romance and marriage for Dorothy and Ros, with some surprising twists and turns. This quintessentially American tale does not stint on drama. At times, however, a magazine editor’s hand is all too evident here: Wickenden’s transitions can be dizzyingly fast; by the end, we are made to leap decades, even centuries, in the course of a single sentence. But even so, the narrative itself positively glimmers. Filled with the language of the day, informed by newspaper accounts, court records, personal journals and two teachers’ rich observations, “Nothing Daunted” is a brilliant little gem of Americana.
Marie Arana is a writer-at-large for The Post and author of the memoir “American Chica: Two Worlds, One Childhood.”