This is my review of Dorothy Wickenden's Nothing Daunted, which ran on auburnpub.com on August 12, 2011.
In 2008, author Dorothy Wickenden found a folder that contained letters from her grandmother, Dorothy Woodruff. Her grandmother had written these letters in 1916-1917, when she and her best friend, Ros Underwood, lived and taught school in Elkhead, Colo.
The letters became the basis for Wickenden’s fascinating narrative non-fiction book, “Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West.”
Dorothy and Ros grew up in Auburn, daughters of prominent citizens. Their ancestors were “entrepreneurs and lawyers and bankers, who had become wealthy during the Industrial Revolution.” Dorothy’s grandfather lived next door to William Seward on South Street.
The girls graduated from Smith College, one of the first women’s colleges in the country. Following graduation, they made a “grand tour” of Europe, and spent a great deal of time in Paris.
Upon their return from Europe, it was assumed that they would marry prominent men and spend their time doing charity work in Auburn. But the ladies did not find any men who interested them enough to marry, and when they heard about a small school in Elkhead, Colo. looking for two teachers, the adventurous ladies went westward.
Ferry Carpenter was a young Princeton graduate who had also earned a law degree from Harvard. He was drawn to the west, and longed to be a homesteader. He ended up in Colorado, and wanted to start a school for the families who lived in Elkhead.
Carpenter had an ulterior motive behind starting the school. There were few single women in the rugged area, and he thought that if he opened a school, he would be able to hire a few lovely single women to teach, who may fall in love with eligible Elkhead bachelors, marry, and stay for good.
The section that describes Carpenter and some of the men reviewing the teachers’ applications is charming and funny. Carpenter asked the applicants to send photos of themselves, and the men reviewed the photos, choosing Dorothy and Ros for their beauty as well as their brains.
Neither Ros nor Dorothy had a teaching degree, but they were well-educated. They took their newfound lifestyle in stride, sharing a bed in the small home of the Harrison family, riding horses through blizzards daily to get to school, attending dances and potluck suppers for entertainment, and wandering through the countryside with Ferry Carpenter and his friend Bob Perry.
They became good teachers, although teaching the children to cook was a bit of a challenge for them. Everyone in the community loved them, and they cherished their students. The families were mostly poor, and Dorothy and Ros’ families and friends in Auburn sent huge packages for Christmas, filled with gifts and foodstuffs for the students, as well as presents for Carpenter, Perry and the Harrison family.
The chapter “The Girls From Auburn” is of special interest to people from our area. It opens with a lovely picture of Dorothy and Ros in a canoe on Owasco Lake. Dorothy’s family is described in detail, and many of the names will be familiar, including the Beardsleys, Dorothy’s maternal family.
The reader is immersed in the Auburn of the era: Dorothy going to the Burtis Opera House, summering at Willow Point on Owasco Lake, Eliza Osborne founding the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union, her son Thomas Mott Osborne’s prison reform movement, Fort Hill Cemetery, and President McKinley assassin Leon Czolgosz’ execution at Auburn Prison.
We travel from Auburn of the early 20th century to Europe to New York City, take a train to Michigan and end up in Colorado. Dorothy and Ros were prolific letter writers, and thank goodness their families in Auburn saved their letters for Wickenden to put together so beautifully in this narrative.
Most of the book is about Dorothy and Ros’ time in Elkhead, and it reads like a grown-up version of “Little House on the Prairie.” (Remember when Mary and Laura grew up and became teachers?) The writing is so vivid, you can feel the icy cold wind and the blowing snow, and see the beautiful flowers and mountains.
Their time in Elkhead comes to an end, and the ladies do eventually find love and marriage. (You’ll have to read the book to find out who the lucky guys are.)
What I like about narrative non-fiction is that it tells a true story written in a way that is accessible and interesting to the reader, much like good fiction. Wickenden teaches narrative non-fiction writing in New York City, and she writes in such a manner that you can’t wait to turn the pages to see what happens next to these amazing ladies.
The notes, acknowledgements and bibliography at the end of the book are nearly as interesting as the book itself. Wickenden references all of the people in Auburn who assisted her, and according to her publisher Simon & Schuster’s website, she will make an appearance on Sept. 17 at the Auburn Public Theater to discuss this book.
I was happy to see that “Nothing Daunted” has been named to many must-read summer lists and is on The New York Times’ e-books best-seller list. This fascinating read is for anyone who likes a crackling good true story, and holds special interest for Auburnians. It’s also a great story of girl power and the bravery and adventurous attitude that these incredible ladies had. I give it my highest rating of five stars.