Dorothy Wickenden's Nothing Daunted describes two well-bred young easterners who braved the Wild West.
What made you decide to write this book?
I grew up with my grandmother's unforgettable stories about the year she and her closest friend, Rosamond, taught the children of homesteaders in a remote schoolhouse in the Rockies. A few years ago, laid up with a broken ankle, I found the letters she had written to her family and began reading them. I was stunned by their detail. They were full of vivid personalities, romance, humor, and even an account of the violent kidnapping of Ros's future husband she'd often described. There were the rambunctious, ragged children they taught; the winter mornings when they had to crack the ice in the pitcher of water on their dresser and ride to school in raging blizzards; the lonely cowboys with thoughts of marriage. I began to wonder what other accounts of that year had been left behind and found some surprises.
Dorothy and Ros traveled and met a host of interesting characters, and their correspondences created an artifact of the era. What part of their story did you most enjoy?
I loved watching them interact with people they never would have encountered in Auburn, the wealthy city in New York where they grew up. In Elkhead, [Colo.,] their tiny landlady, with enormous false teeth, endless energy, and no complaints about her harsh life, was a source of great inspiration. Their employer—a young Princeton and Harvard graduate, a local lawyer, and a homesteader himself—was a savvy and idealistic community organizer. The man who taught the boys cobbling at school was an impoverished Russian Jew whose life's dream was to become a rancher in the West. Dorothy and Ros had landed in a place as foreign as any they had ever visited, and their exhilaration about it all was contagious.
Does their story tell us something larger about the development of the West and the role of women in early 20th-century America?
Dorothy and Ros saw the West as it was growing up—from their rural school, which aspired to be as good as any city counterpart, to the rough mining town that supplied fuel for the businesses and homes east of the Continental Divide. Ros said afterward, "I never appreciated ‘coal' before." My grandmother once told my brothers and me, "No young lady in our town had ever been hired by anybody." They were, suddenly, "working girls," with a new appreciation of what went into the building of America.