If somewhere in your home or office you are maintaining a stack of books labeled “wonderful reads for summer vacation,” please make haste to add Nothing Daunted to the top of heap. For charm and pleasing readability, you won’t find much to beat it.
In the fall of 2008, The New Yorker’s executive editor, Dorothy Wickenden, came across a stack of forgotten family letters. They were written by her grandmother, Dorothy Woodruff, who, in the school year of 1916-17, left her privileged life in New York state in the company of her best friend Rosamund Underwood, to move to Elkhead, Colo., and teach in a rural schoolhouse for a year. During their year in the mountains, the two well-educated young women – both graduates of Smith College – wrote faithfully to friends and family back home, leaving a rich narrative trail that Wickenden wonderfully weaves into the story, which she has subtitled: “The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West.”
Dorothy and Ros had been best friends since they met in their kindergarten (one of America’s first) in Auburn, N.Y., in 1892. They enjoyed happy, affluent girlhoods, thanks to the wealth of their industrialist male forebearers. They went on to study at Smith, spent a year together in Europe learning French and soaking up culture, and then came home – to do nothing much.
When they heard of a Harvard-educated lawyer out West who was searching for a pair of cultured Eastern teachers for his rural schoolhouse, they jumped at the chance for adventure. It was certainly nothing anyone ever expected them to do. (“No young lady in our town,” Dorothy would later recall, “had ever been hired by anybody.”)
But their parents said yes and so off they went, to live with a family of homesteaders and teach in a stone schoolhouse from which they spent their days watching “dozens of cowpunchers rounding up cattle nearby, tearing around the schoolhouse and down the hill at breakneck speed” and to which their students sometimes had to commute over the snow on barrel staves.
The two young women – who, despite their cosseted beginnings, seem to have been the ultimate good sports – wholeheartedly embraced their Western adventure. “They couldn’t take it in fast enough,” recalled a member of their homesteading family. Together they toured mines and ranches, danced and partied with their Western peers, endured the kidnapping of a friend, and seem to have charmed everyone that they met.
Rather like a good Jane Austen novel, the story ends – or seems to – with a pair of weddings. But Wickenden tacks on an epilogue with some surprising twists and turns, so be sure not to skip that as you read.
Wickenden does a wonderful job of delivering to us a rich slice of everyday American history sandwiched together with the lovely story of a pair of lifelong friends. In later years Ros would remember the Colorado adventure that she and Dorothy shared as the best year of her life. By the time you reach the end of this book, you will wholeheartedly agree.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s books editor.