Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Nothing Daunted by Dorothy Wickenden

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West is the true story of the author’s grandmother and her best friend, reconstructed from nearly 100 letters written by the two young women. In addition to these letters, the author interviewed those persons still alive from the events and their descendents; located other documents, news articles, and other sources; and visited the sites described.

Dorothy and Rosamond were childhood friends who attended Smith College together, toured Europe together, and generally did the things that upper class young ladies of the time did. However, in 1916, unsatisfied with the endless round of balls and social events, they decided to answer an advertisement seeking two teachers to serve at a small school district in western Colorado. This book tells of their adventures during that year of teaching.

The story itself is pretty simple, and therefore makes for a short book by itself. The author therefore fills in a good bit of background on the families of Dorothy and Rosamond, the history of the Elkhead, Colorado area, the histories of some of the other main characters, and the story of what happened to Dorothy and Rosamond later in life.

There are two signs in this book that the author was writing in our very modern age. First, she attempts to keep the narrative as flat and unsensational as possible, She lets the letters do the talking, filling in the details as necessary. Since Dorothy and Rosamond took care to avoid alarming their already nervous parents, the danger and excitement are both underplayed a little. A more natural storyteller could perhaps have made the story a bit more compelling, but that really is a matter of taste. Dorothy and Rosamond wrote with a dry wit, which is enough by itself. It would have been fascinating to have read the original letters in their entirety.

The second sign of modern sensibilities is the lack of sympathy the author has for the attitudes and values of the society 100 years ago. In a few instances she seems to fail to understand why after a year of employment and freedom, both women chose to marry and become mothers and housewives. This is a general problem, I think, with each age. We hold previous generations to a modern standard, just as those in prior centuries held their ancestors to their own ideals. This is why Huckleberry Finn is now available in a bowdlerized edition. Fortunately, I found the bias to be fairly easy to ignore.

This book is a worthwhile, quick read that tells of two extraordinary women in a time and place that has become forgotten. I would recommend reading through the lengthy acknowledgements at the end, as they tell of the interviews that the author did. I found these to be fascinating in themselves. I would have loved to have heard the story directly from the sources, as so many of the individuals had stories of their own to tell.

No comments:

Post a Comment