Nothing Daunted:
The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West

by Dorothy Wickenden


Scribner, 2011. ISBN 978-1-439-17658-0.
Reviewed by Martha Meacham
Posted on 05/30/2011

Nonfiction: Biography; Nonfiction: History/Current Events; Nonfiction: Nature/Place/Environment

Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West, paints a picture of the lives of two Victorian women who break from tradition to pursue their youthful passions. The author's grandmother and her friend received the best education available to women at the time and still yearned for some real world experiences. Formal education at Smith College, and learning abroad both paled in comparison to the time Dorothy Woodruff spent out West as a "working girl."

Woodruff's granddaughter, Dorothy Wickenden, tells the story of these two individuals who were brought together for nine months in Elkland, Colorado. A portrait emerges of two worlds in 1916—the predictable, comfortable life in the upper-class society of the industrialized East Coast and the remote, hardscrabble life on the western frontier. The author breathes life into the stories of men and women on the frontier by researching and reconstructing Dorothy Woodruff's letters and memorabilia.

This book is a fascinating glimpse into the social milieu of the period, along with insight into the personal lives of two families of considerable social standing in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. The story has it all: romance, intrigue, adventure, politics and family histories. At times the narrative reads like a mini-series on the history of upstate New York with accounts of notable suffragettes, abolitionists, and politicians. Auburn, NY has a proud history as a hub of political reformers and a hotbed for social justice. Wickenden characterizes the town as a world where "Sons and daughters inherited their elders' names and their fortunes." I felt as though I came to know Dorothy Wickenden's charming grandmother through her own words.

As she responds to her new life in the wilds of Colorado, Dorothy's exuberance shows as she says, "You simply can't conceive of the newness of this country." The letters are edited in such a way to evoke the gamut of emotions the young women felt on their journey. There are twists and turns in the narrative like the railroad tracks winding through the Rocky Mountains.

Readers interested in the nascent history of women's rights and the related issues of opportunities for women will likely appreciate this author's work, as well as find out what could possibly allure two young women to live in a place so different from their home.


Dorothy Wickenden lives in Westchester, NY with her family. She became the Executive Editor of The New Yorker in January 1996. She is also faculty of the Writer's Institute at CUNY's Graduate Center where she teaches narrative nonfiction. Visit her website.

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