Dorothy Wickenden's Nothing Daunted: How did two society girls manage on the western frontier?

Reading between the lines.
July 4 2011 6:55 AM

Teach for America, Frontier Edition

What two young society women dared, and learned, out West in 1916.

To listen to Slate's Jessica Grose interview Dorothy Wickenden, the author of Nothing Daunted, click on the audio player below.

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On the Elkhead end of things, the town was getting ready for its new teachers. The Elkhead school was expressly built to attract more homesteaders to the area. The teachers were part of the lure. "[Carpenter] realized that if Elkhead created its own district and school board, they could recruit new teachers every year or two—supplying the children with instruction, the residents with a community center, and the cowboys with a steady influx of prospective brides." So important was this match-making element of the school that the cowboys actually surveyed photos of the prospective teachers, gatekeeping with their libidos. Once they got a load of the photos of Ros (who was "voted the best-looking girl in the junior class of Smith College"), the Auburn girls were a shoe-in, even though neither had ever taught school.

And so they headed west. On the eve of their departure, the Syracuse Daily Journal ran a headline: "SOCIETY GIRLS GO TO WILDS OF COLORADO." After a long train trip, Dorothy and Ros landed in Elkhead, just west of Steamboat Springs, Col., a high desert place of "sage and badlands." In this unforgiving country, the women found friendship, hard work, heartache, and even a little cowboy love. Wickenden has the sense to pull as much plot as possible out of this slender story and turns her book into a gentle romance as well as a tale of the triumph of determination over adversity.

The author calls her book an "alternative Western," but the values on parade here are timeworn American verities: pluck, loyalty, courage, and indomitable optimism. Dorothy seemed to like just about everything she saw in Colorado. She wrote of her new neighbors, "It is an entirely new type to me, for we never see such keen, receptive wide-awake intelligent people living such hard lives." Where others might have found desolation, she and Ros consistently found something to admire. Here is Ros on her new place of work: "The schoolhouse stands high on a mountain or hill between the two districts called 'little Arkansas' and 'Calf Creek.' It is the Parthenon of Elkhead!"

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Dorothy and Ros boarded with the Harrisons, a homesteading family whose house was uninsulated and had no interior walls. Dorothy wrote with characteristic humor, "This lends intimacy to an unimagined degree and you know it—every time any one turns over in bed, and it is especially sociable when the wind blows." Mrs. Harrison cheerfully made do with very little, and stretched what she had to accommodate the young teachers.

What is alternative about this history is its lens, which is trained on a strain of feminine resilience that doesn't often come into focus in accounts of the frontier. Mrs. Harrison was but one of a seemingly unending parade of remarkable women. Wickenden writes, "The state seemed to be full of tiny invincible women who never complained—a source of inspiration particularly to Dorothy." The young women made friends with a wealthy rancher named Bob Perry; Perry's sister Marjorie was a daredevil and a famous horsewoman and hunter; Perry's other sister, Charlotte, helped start a bohemian dance camp high in the Rockies—where Agnes de Mille, John Cage, and Merce Cunningham eventually all taught. Everywhere Dorothy and Ros went, they found yet another woman shaping an unusual and difficult life. It's fascinating to see the very American quality of rugged individualism germinating and growing not just in the men but in the women of the West.

Dorothy's enthusiasm was constant. Sometimes it even feels teeth-grittingly determined, but that doesn't make it any less infectious. One sunny winter day, she scribbled a letter to her mother: "This immense expanse of snow reflects the color of the sky—until it is really bluer than any Impressionist pictures I have ever seen." There's something wonderfully American about this moment, about the way she rejects the Impressionist masters in favor of the real-life skies of the West. Dorothy turns her gaze away from culture, away from Europe, away from civilization, toward the new country opening up before her. Here is the society girl, free at last of society.

Claire Dederer is the author of Poser: My Life in Twenty-three Yoga Poses.

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