'Nothing Daunted': From Society Women To Pioneers In 1916, best friends Dorothy Woodruff and Rosamond Underwood left the comfort of New York society for a pioneer settlement in Colorado. Woodruff's granddaughter, Dorothy Wickenden, tells the story of their adventure in Nothing Daunted.
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'Nothing Daunted': From Society Women To Pioneers

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'Nothing Daunted': From Society Women To Pioneers

'Nothing Daunted': From Society Women To Pioneers

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

Now, here's a book I wish I could have written. It's called "Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West." It's written by Dorothy Wickenden, who first wrote a version of the story for The New Yorker, where she's the executive editor. The book is about her grandmother Woodruff, also named Dorothy. Dorothy Woodruff and her best friend forever, Rosamund Underwood, grew up together in Auburn, New York in very comfortable upper-middle-class circumstances. They were best friends from kindergarten. They went to Smith College together. They went on the European tour, which was a coming-of-age ritual for girls of their class. But somehow seven years after graduation, Dorothy and Rosamund remained unmarried and longing for adventure. Dorothy Wickenden tells the story of the adventure they found, which changed their lives. She joins us from NPR West to talk about the book. Dorothy Wickenden, thanks for coming in.

DOROTHY WICKENDEN: Thank you for having me, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: Did you know your grandmother Dorothy?

WICKENDEN: I did. I knew her very well. She'd come to visit us a couple of times a year and we'd go to visit her a couple of times a year. And every time we did, my brothers and I would make her sit down and tell us this story about the year in Colorado. So, I remembered it very well.

WERTHEIMER: Their adventure began when a young woman from Wellesley College, Emily Calloway, had an introduction to meet Rosamund. They had tea and they began to talk about how difficult it was for young women to find meaningful work. Now, this, of course, was the beginning of the 20th century. This is sort of the launch of their adventure. Could you read from the middle of page 81?

WICKENDEN: (Reading) Calloway mentioned that just that day she had heard from a Wellesley friend, Ruth Carpenter Woodley, who had an adventuresome brother named Ferry Carpenter. She described his background and told Roz and Dorothy that he had worked with his neighbors for five years to build a consolidated schoolhouse in the Elk Head Mountain Range. Her brother was a man of vision, Ruth wrote to Emily, and he had asked her to look around New York for two young female college graduates who would consider teaching out there for a year or two. Mrs. Underwood knew that Rosamond felt constricted in her life at home. And as Calloway spoke, she saw her daughter's animated response. She was not surprised to hear Roz say, I'd like to try it myself if my best friend and classmate from Smith, Dorothy Woodruff, would go with me.

WERTHEIMER: So, Ferry Carpenter brings them out to the Elk Head Mountains on the western slope of Colorado, a little community, which is called - it's called Elk Head, isn't it?

WICKENDEN: It is, still.

WERTHEIMER: The Syracuse paper reported, Society Girls Go to the Wilds of Colorado.

WICKENDEN: Yes, they did, and their parents were shocked and almost didn't allow them to go, even though they were 29 years old. And Rosamund's mother said, when she realized that Roz was serious about this, that she was fully competent to make this decision herself. But it was a long trip across the Great Plains - it took four days. And where they were going, high up in the mountains, it was just a tiny settlement of 25 families or so.

WERTHEIMER: Talk about where they lived.

WICKENDEN: They lived in a - with a family of homesteaders who had just moved from the valley to the mountains. So, the home, it was a very rudimentary log house, and it wasn't even finished yet. When they walked inside, the front step was a soapbox and the insider walls weren't up yet. The rooms, such as they were, were just divided by rugs. And my grandmother said that they reached the second floor, which is where they slept, by a set of shaky and rather ladder-like stairs. And the room was so small, as Rosamund described it, if one of them fell out of bed, she would have rolled right down those stairs.

WERTHEIMER: And it was no heat, they cooked on a wood fire, they...

WICKENDEN: It was actually a coal-fired stove in the kitchen, and that provided the only heat in the house. And this was the most brutal winter that anybody in that whole region had ever remembered. There were blizzards almost every day, the temperature plunged sometimes to 40 degrees below zero. The pitcher in the water on their bureau froze every night.

WERTHEIMER: And in that same period, Dorothy and Rosamund felt very keenly how hard the lives of the little children that they were teaching were.

WICKENDEN: One of the things that was so interesting to me was to see how quickly they adapted to this life that was unlike anything they had ever even imagined. And when they first got there it was August. So, in the early days of school it was still warm outside, the children arrived in bare feet, and the two teachers thought this was all charming - their sunburned faces and the raggedy clothes. And within a couple of weeks, they realized that this wasn't picturesque, that these people were desperately poor. And once they realized that and they saw how cold it was going to be, they sent letters home to their parents. And by then their parents had decided that they were missionaries in the West. And they got their churches together and just about every week, barrels of clothing arrived for the children, and books. And they did it as delicately as they could because they didn't want to offend these people who were very proud, but the fact was the children needed shoes, they needed coats, they needed just about everything.

WERTHEIMER: Your grandmother said, I think, or you said in the book that the life she had after that year in Colorado was not as easy as she might have expected it to be and that somehow the Colorado experience prepared her.

WICKENDEN: It did and it did for Rosamund too. Both of them summoned up the experience and the memories of the pioneer women about how they ran the ranches and they had a very sort of cheerful way of looking at their lives. They always hoped for the best. And I talked about this a little bit with my aunt Caroline, which is one of the ones to whom the book is dedicated, and about how my grandmother coped. And she said, you know, my mother just grabbed life by the throat and dealt with it. And I don't think she possibly could have done that if she hadn't been out west and watched how these other women dealt with their own difficulties.

WERTHEIMER: Dorothy Wickenden is executive editor of The New Yorker. Her new book about her grandmother's adventures in Colorado's high country is called "Nothing Daunted." Congratulations on the book.

WICKENDEN: Thank you so much, Linda.

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