Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Nothing Daunted--Book Review

Nothing Daunted, by Dorothy Wickenden.  Biography.

Nothing Daunted is a biography of the author's grandmother and her best friend, who left New York state in 1916 to spend a year teaching school in the wilds of Colorado.  Thoroughly researched, the story makes use of copious family letters as well as a great deal of background research.

In fact, I would argue that the story makes too much use of the background research.  Although all of the information provided does help to set the scene, at times it becomes a bit. . . daunting.  History comes at us from all angles, history of Hayden, CO and environs, and history of Auburn, NY, and of the families of the two young women.  I was further put off by the organization of the book, with bits of the main story dropped in and then ignored through long stretches of backstory and local color.

The book really comes to life when the author brings us to the women's trip West and the life they find in Colorado.  Intrusions are greatly reduced once we are ensconced in the mountains, and begin teaching--something for which neither woman is specifically trained, though they did a good job of preparing themselves in the months before departure.  Fortunately, Dorothy Woodruff, the author's grandmother, wrote lots of letters, as did her friend Rosamond--Ros--Underwood.

Probably the most striking thing to emerge from the story is the contrast between life in an eastern city--it is 1916, and the modern age has definitely begun--and life in the Colorado mountains, where things seem firmly stuck in the pioneer age, including the schooling.  But these women didn't take the adventure wholly as a lark.  They were 28 years old, and unhappy with the lot that society seemed to have destined for them (marry and be a society wife).  Going to Colorado was something of a whim and an adventure, but it was also a serious attempt to find a place where they could make a difference.

What the young women don't know, at least not at first, is that part of the reason that the well-to-do sponsor of the school has advertised for young women from the east is that he hopes to bring marriageable women into the community, which suffers from a lack of brides.  This mission reads in the beginning like a joke, but it becomes clear that this is a serious goal, and a genuine need in the community.

Altogether, the strengths of the book--the genuine story with it's own narrative arc and romantic interests--outweigh the weaknesses.  For me, at least, with a strong interest in the history of the settlement of the West and particularly the role of women there, Nothing Daunted  offers a unique snapshot of a time and region about which I know relatively little.

Three point five stars.

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