Book review: ‘Nothing Daunted,’ by Dorothy Wickenden
Special to the Daily
With the world moving away from letter writing, people are opting instead to let the digital “cloud” take control of their memories. So, a book like Dorothy Wickenden’s “Nothing Daunted” is a refreshing reminder of the value of the hand-written word and the wonderful histories we can garner from a personal correspondence that is preserved. Certainly, without access to a treasure trove of detailed letters home, Wickenden would not have felt the urge to dig more deeply into the fascinating history of her grandmother, Dorothy Woodruff.
Born into the Victorian era when the only goal of women was to “finish” themselves so they could win a reputable and well-aligned marriage, Dorothy Woodruff and her childhood friend, Rosamund Underwood, yearned to experience something more before taking that inevitable step. Raised in Auburn, New York, with every privilege and every chance of securing successful marriages, they had no need to look beyond their safe world for a guaranteed future. They attended Smith College, an all-girls school, and followed their graduations with the wealthy class’s customary tour of Europe.
Their chance to deviate from custom came upon their return, when convention demanded that they play the social circuit and immediately set about landing husbands. But, in spite of the prevalence of traditional expectations, events during their “coming of age” years greatly influenced their evolving outlook on the world. Young women in towns all around Auburn and beyond were involved in the emerging women’s suffrage movement, and the girls sensed the shifting atmosphere and were emboldened by it, eager to take the reins of their own destinies. So, instead of seeking out husbands, the young women answered an advertisement for teaching positions at a newly formed rural school in the far reaches of western Colorado.
The women became part of Colorado’s frontier history in the early 20th century, when much of the state was still very rural and rustic, living decades behind the more settled states in the East. Women had been a pivotal component of the settling of the West since its beginning, playing supporting roles to the trappers and prospectors and the communities that built up around them. Dorothy and Ros were following in the footsteps of those intrepid women, bringing their talents and energy to the needy children of the small town of Elkhead, near Steamboat Springs.
For Eastern socialites, accustomed to every comfort, they were pleasantly surprised by Denver’s sophistication and modern allure. They spent their first night at the luxurious Brown Palace Hotel before heading over the Continental Divide on the famed Moffat Railroad, a treacherous journey to their final destination of Hayden. Their “boss” is Ferry Carpenter, a young lawyer who has settled in the area to try his luck at homesteading and ranching. He is college educated and a pleasant surprise to the young women.
They soon find that they are the main attractions in the small mountain community, as they are the only eligible women for miles. Meanwhile, at home in Auburn, their friends and families feared their adventure would make them unfit for marriage. But, the women didn’t worry about how they were viewed back home; they were in awe of the clear air and the striking vistas and were eager to get to work.
Their hosts are a local family with one of the children they will be teaching in the school. The house is small and sparse, but cozy, and they quickly make fast friends with the owners. The girls adjust to their new living conditions, in spite of the alien nature of their situation. Never before have they had to manage without servants, and venturing into a kitchen and doing their own laundry are new experiences.
One of the classes they are expected to teach is “domestic science,” something they know absolutely nothing about, having lived a life of privilege. Mr. Carpenter allows them to skip that class, knowing they will have plenty to offer the children. The newly built stone school is situated so no child in the district will have to make longer than a three-mile journey. The girls discover their two-mile journey by horseback is a challenge, and it opens their eyes to the level of commitment by the local children to their own education.
Wickenden’s account is much more than just a rehashing of the day-to-day experiences of the young women’s year of teaching. She weaves in fascinating and relevant details of significant Colorado history and the larger-than-life individuals who were pivotal in the shaping of modern Colorado. Her careful attention to where the two women fit into that history goes a long way in reminding us that we are all a part of shaping the world, and her book highlights the value of preserving of our own stories for future generations.
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