"Nothing Daunted" – a Q&A with Dorothy Wickenden
Dorothy Wickenden talks about how her grandmother and her best friend – society girls from the East – headed West for adventure in 1916.
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One of the more touching aspects of this book is the story of the friendship between Dorothy and Ros. What do you think drew these two girls/women so closely together?
Dorothy spotted Ros across the room on their first day of kindergarten and instantly “fell in love with her,” as she put it. They were well matched: Ros was soft-spoken, generous, gracious, and beautiful. Dorothy was headstrong, funny, and opinionated. Ferry Carpenter, [the book’s] male protagonist, later described Dorothy as the “spark plug” of the pair. Neither would have gone west alone, but together they were, as Ros put it the night before they headed over the Continental Divide, “nothing daunted.” They were friends for 83 years.
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Does the America that Dorothy and Ros experienced during their year out west still exist – or has it disappeared?
Much of it has vanished. The homesteading experience didn’t turn out the way people hoped it would, and the railroad they took from Denver over the Rockies went bankrupt long ago. The sense of buoyant optimism that was shared by most of the people in “Nothing Daunted” never really returned after World War I. But during my trips to Colorado, I’ve seen much of what appealed to them – the rugged beauty of the terrain and the self-reliance and warm hospitality of the people there.
Before you wrote this book, did you know much about this story and do you think it affected your life in any fashion?
My grandmother was a wonderful storyteller, so I had heard quite a bit about her life as a child and as a young woman, but her accounts were fragmented. I was only able to put it together into a narrative when I began to track down the letters, photographs, oral histories, and descendants of the people she had described. I also knew little about the history of Auburn or about the building of northwestern Colorado, where much of the story takes place.
All of this reminded me how brief this country’s history is. I was incredibly fortunate that Dorothy and Ros were such dedicated correspondents, and that their families saved their letters. It was the letters that allowed me to reenact their experiences and bring back to life many otherwise forgotten characters.
What’s the most precious thing that you discovered about your grandmother from doing this?
Her sense of humor, which allowed her to take life in stride.
What did you learn about America and the 20th century from doing this?
I was drawn to the animating idealism of the early 20th century. In young Colorado, Dorothy and Ros discovered a triumph of will and perseverance over prudence. They didn’t see much of the darker side of Manifest Destiny, so I explored some of that, too – from Auburn to Elkhead. The big stone school where they taught – built by a few dozen families for their children on the top of a mountain – can be seen as a folly or a monument to hope. The reader can decide which it was.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's books editor.