A grandmother’s letters become the basis for a rousing new tome.Some grandmothers pass down recipes, but New Yorker executive editor Dorothy Wickenden’s maternal grandmother, Dorothy Woodruff, left a set of letters about an unforgettable experience: In 1916, Woodruff and her friend Rosamond Underwood — pals since kindergarten — shocked the high society of Auburn, N.Y., by heading to Elkhead, Colo., to teach school to homesteaders’ children. Wickenden’s inspiring and often funny book, Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West (Scribner, $26), maps the trail blazed by the two women.
Naturally, the project gave Wickenden a great deal of insight into her grandmother (and namesake), whom she recalls as “a baffling mix of Victorian propriety and modern thinking.” And she couldn’t help but thrill at a picture of Woodruff that turned up during her research. Explains Wickenden, “Once in the 1970s, she looked at me in my tight bell-bottom jeans and said haughtily, ‘I never wore a pair of trousers in my life.’ She wouldn’t even utter the word pants. But when I saw Dorothy’s Elkhead photo album, there she was on skis, looking very comfortable in trousers.”
Woodruff’s breezy letters could easily have stood on their own, but Wickenden chose to shape them into a narrative. It was an experience she calls a “vicarious pleasure,” fleshing out the ladies’ story to offer a broader view of the country — particularly the roles of women — at the time.
“The letters were riveting, but after I read the autobiography of Farrington ‘Ferry’ Carpenter, the young lawyer who hired Dorothy and Rosamond, I knew there was an even better story to be told,” Wickenden explains. “My grandmother had talked a lot over the years about her remarkable friend Ferry but never mentioned a key part of his plan to lure two young female college graduates to northwestern Colorado: The cowboys were lonely and looking for brides. I thought juxtaposing their naive excitement about their new lives and his wily scheme would be full of comic and dramatic potential.”
Her instinct was right: Nothing Daunted is at once enjoyable and enlightening.