In 1916 two well-bred girls, best friends from Auburn, N.Y.—Dorothy Woodruff and Rosamond Underwood—traveled to a settlement in the Rocky Mountains to teach in a one-room schoolhouse. The girls had gone to Smith College. They wore Paris gowns. So for them to move to Elkhead, Colo.—which was basically just a sprinkling of cabins on a mountain ridge—to instruct children whose shoes were held together with string was a surprise, above all to their parents. Their stay in Elkhead is the subject of Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West, by Dorothy Wickenden, who is the executive editor of The New Yorker and Dorothy Woodruff’s granddaughter.
Why did they go? At 29, they were well on their way to spinsterhood, and if that was going to be their future, they wanted to devote it to something useful. Soon, however, they realized what they had undertaken. Before they left, the man who hired them wrote to them, “If you have a .22 you had better bring it out.”
They moved in with a local family, the Harrisons, and, like them, had little privacy, rare baths, a blanket of snow on their quilt when they woke up in the morning. Some mornings, Ros and Dorothy would arrive at the schoolhouse to find the children weeping from the cold. In spring, the snow was replaced by mud over ice—“slick as snot,” in the words of the townsfolk.
An unforgettable passage deals with the Christmas party that Ros and Dorothy organized at the school. The local mothers, gaunt and gray already in their youth, rolled their babies up in blankets and stowed them under the furniture to give themselves space to dance, or just to take in a little music, warmth, and cake. The settling of the West broke many people.
Wickenden’s book began as an article in The New Yorker, but for Nothing Daunted, she expanded on the history of the West—the gold rushes, the rout of the Indians, the Homestead Act—and also on feminism, which of course influenced the girls’ decision to go to Elkhead. A hair-raising section concerns the building of the railroads, which entailed drilling through the Rockies, often in blinding snowstorms. A worker recalled that one day “the big snowplow chewed up two or three of the Chinese. After that, they refused to go out and shovel, and I don’t blame them.”
The book ends on an elegiac note. Ros and Dorothy were in Elkhead for only a year. They would have stayed longer, Dorothy says, but they finally married, which feels like a comedown. Their joint engagement party in Auburn was described in a local paper as “one of the most attractive of the afternoon functions ever held in this city”—a far cry, in truth to life’s circumstances, from the Elkhead Christmas party.
Wickenden is a very good storyteller, and bracingly unsentimental. The sweep of the land and the stoicism of the people move her to some beautiful writing. Here is a picture of Dorothy, on her horse, looking down from a ridge: “When the sun slipped behind the mountains, it shed a rosy glow all around them. Then a full moon rose. The snow was marked only by the hieroglyphs of small animals: foxes, coyotes, mice, and varying hares, which turned white in the winter.”
Acocella is the author of Willa Cather and The Politics of Criticism and dance critic for The New Yorker.