Dorothy Woodruff and Rosamond Underwood were best friends from kindergarten. They shared an upper-middle class childhood in Auburn, N.Y., went to Smith College together and took part in one of the most common coming of age rituals of their class — the European tour.
It was 1916 — a time when women were expected to settle down young. But seven years after graduating from Smith, Woodruff and Underwood were still unmarried and longing for adventure. So they moved to a pioneer settlement in Elkhead, Colo.
Dorothy Wickenden, Woodruff's granddaughter, tells their story in Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West. The book started out as an article in The New Yorker, where Wickenden is executive editor.
She tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer that Underwood got the idea for a Colorado adventure after having tea with Emily Callaway, a young woman from Wellesley College. The two were discussing how difficult it was for women their age to find meaningful work when Callaway mentioned a friend whose brother, Ferry Carpenter, had just built a school a Colorado's Elkhead Mountains.
"He had asked [his sister] to look around New York for two young, female college graduates who would consider teaching out there for a year or two," Wickenden says. "[Rosamond's mother] knew that Rosamond felt constricted in her life at home and as [Callaway] spoke, she saw her daughter's animated response. She was not surprised to hear [Rosamond] say, 'I'd like to try it myself if my best friend and classmate from Smith, Dorothy Woodruff, would go with me.'"
'To The Wilds Of Colorado'
Underwood and Woodruff's decision to fill the Colorado job opening stunned their families as well as the community. The Syracuse Daily Journal's coverage of their trip carried the headline "Society Girls go to Wilds of Colorado."
"Their parents were shocked and almost didn't allow them to go, even though they were 29," Wickenden says. "Rosmond's mother said — when she realized [Rosamond] was serious about this — that she was fully competent to make this decision herself."
The women braved a four-day journey across the Great Plains to Elkhead, a tiny settlement of about 25 families at the time. Once there, they moved into a rudimentary log house with a family of homesteaders and just a small coal-fired stove to keep them warm.
Wickenden recalls the stories her grandmother told of Elkhead: "My grandmother said they reached the second floor, which was where they slept, by a set of shaky and rather ladder-like stairs. And the room was so small, as Rosamond described it, if one of them fell out of bed she would have rolled right down those stairs."
Learning The Ways Of The Frontier
The year the women arrived in Elkhead was also the coldest anyone in the area could remember, with temperatures dipping to 40 degrees below zero and blizzards nearly every day.
"The pitcher of water on their bureau froze every night," Wickenden says.
But the hardest part of the cold for the pair wasn't their own well-being; it was observing the toll it took on their young students.
When they first arrived in August their students would often come to school barefoot.
"The two teachers thought this was all charming — their sunburned faces, the raggedy clothes — within a couple of weeks they realized that this wasn't picturesque," she says. "These people were desperately poor."
Worried about their students' lack of clothing for the harsh winter, the women wrote to their parents back East for help and their families soon organized their local churches to send barrels of clothing and supplies to the settlement every week.
The women returned home after a year in Elkhead, but Wickenden says the time they spent at the settlement stayed with them forever.
"I talked about this a little bit with my Aunt Caroline," Wickenden says. "She said, 'You know, my mother just grabbed life by the throat and dealt with it, and I don't think she possibly could have done that if she hadn't been out West and watched how these other women dealt with their own difficulties.'"
The publishing and film industries are innately intertwined — the peanut butter and chocolate of the entertainment world. This complementary, crackling energy between New York and Hollywood determines the big narratives that fill our popcorn-munching hours and drive idle chatter during coffee breaks. It makes sense, then, that they tend to follow the same release schedules, reserving the spring and early autumn for indie offerings, and the summer and holidays for potential blockbusters. And though a hit hardcover will, in its long shelf life, generate less than the opening weekend take of, say, The Green Lantern, a book and a movie enter the world with the same spirit — to transport us.
There is no literary genre that says "big, juicy hit" like nonfiction adventure; these are titles so packed with action and drama that they feel like movies in waiting (and in fact, most of them are). These are the stories that, when they work, have the chance to become smashes (think The Lost City of Z, Unbroken, or the current bestsellers Lost in Shangri-La and The Psychopath Test), crowding e-readers and beach bags everywhere. This summer, a bunch of new entries have breakout potential: the diabolical story of a mad-genius impostor; a high-stakes heist born of true love; a humid sojourn to the heart of South America; a teeth-chattering account of a mountain climb gone wrong; and the tale of two society women who made it in the rough and tumble world of cowboys. Read them before Hollywood execs get their hands on them and start tossing their millions at Brad and Angelina.
The Man In The Rockefeller Suit: The Astonishing Rise And Spectacular Fall Of A Serial Impostor
By Mark Seal; hardcover, 336 pages; Viking Adult, list price: $26.95
Anyone who has read Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley (or seen Matt Damon's glistening abs in the 1999 film adaptation) knows there is nothing more chilling than a case of stolen identity rendered on an obsessive scale. Vanity Fair writer Mark Seal discovered such a case when he began researching an article on Clark Rockefeller, the pseudonym of German con-man Christian Gerhartsreiter. As a young man, Gerhartsreiter moved to the States and set out to adopt various guises and aliases, finally positing himself as an obscure member of the sprawling Rockefeller clan. This counterfeit personality freed him to swirl in the highest social circles, to marry and have a child with Harvard Business School graduate Sandra Boss, and — with her income, alone — to purchase two tony houses in New England.
When the marriage soured and Boss realized she'd been duped, the mysteries began to unspool at breakneck speed. Gerhartsreiter, it turned out, was connected to the bizarre disappearance and possible murder of a Southern California couple in the 1980s, and was also arrested for kidnapping his own daughter. Seal's telling of the long con in Vanity Fair won a National Magazine Award, and his book-length rendering does not disappoint. In striking detail, and at a rapid clip, the writer unravels the complex and fantastically bizarre tale of a man aspiring to the American Dream by any means necessary.
Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education Of Two Society Girls In The West
By Dorothy Wickenden; hardcover, 304 pages; Scribner, list price: $26
Another stunning magazine profile expanded into book form, Dorothy Wickenden's recounting of her grandmother Dorothy Woodruff's treacherous cross-country journey is as charming as it is rugged. In 1916, Woodruff and her close childhood friend Rosamund Underwood left New York for the Colorado wilderness, seeking teaching jobs in one of the proliferating pioneer settlements. These society girls, the kind of women more accustomed to high tea than to saddling up or hauling well water, put down roots in Elkhead, Colo., determined to make a difference in the dusty town's small schoolhouse.
Looming large over the story is the character of Ferry Carpenter, a charismatic lawyer who enticed the women to join the settlement, promising them grand adventure and opportunity. What he hadn't alerted them to were the bitter blizzards, the town full of idle men looking to land a bride, and kids so educationally malnourished that they could not name the president. Wickenden reconstructs the initial journey and the women's first school year through letters they sent back home, capturing both the humor and the isolation of settling the West during wartime. This is Little House on the Prairie in petticoats, and it is enchanting.
Turn Right At Machu Picchu: Rediscovering The Lost City One Step At A Time
By Mark Adams; hardcover, 352 pages; Dutton, list price: $26.95
Mark Adams has spent two decades editing stories on travel and adventure for the likes of National Geographic, Outside and GQ, but he admits he is not much of an "outdoors person" himself. So it is with a healthy sense of humor (he calls himself a "white wine spritzer explorer" and concedes he "might not be completely up-to-date on the latest tent-erecting methods") that he approaches this Peruvian travelogue. Adams, in fact, sleeps in a tent for the first time at, of all places, the remote and mystical Inca city of Machu Picchu. When he finally gets comfortable in his hiking boots, Adams unearths a fascinating story, transporting his readers back to 1911, when Yale professor Hiram Bingham III hiked the Andes and stumbled upon one of South America's most miraculous and cloistered meccas.
Of course, the media loves a villain, so the moment that Bingham began to boast of his findings, many accused him of looting precious artifacts and stealing credit for locating the ancient kingdom. Adams attempts to investigate these charges 100 years later, tracing Bingham's steps and encountering a cast of colorful characters along the way, including lackadaisical mule tenders and a bumbling survivalist. In the process, he tackles the question that plagued not only Bingham but continues to vex historians: What in the world was Machu Picchu? A magical city where innovations were born? An Aztec vacation community? A massive anthropological hoax? And what can we still learn from it?
Turn Right At Machu Picchu is as close to an armchair vacation as you'll get all summer long.
Sex On The Moon: The Amazing Story Behind The Most Audacious Heist In History
By Ben Mezrich; hardcover, 320 pages; Doubleday, list price: $26.95
Ben Mezrich has already written several blockbusters — his last two books, Bringing Down the House (about MIT students who made millions in Vegas, and the basis for 21) and The Accidental Billionaires (about the genesis story of Facebook, and the basis for The Social Network), were eagerly snatched up by Hollywood. So it is no shocker that his latest, Sex on the Moon, has already been optioned by the same team that brought the Facebook story to cinematic life. And with good reason: This is Oceans 11 meets Apollo 13. What filmgoer could resist that pitch?
Love can make you do crazy things, like, say, steal priceless moon rocks from the vaults at NASA. Meet Thad Roberts, a NASA intern who concocted a Mission Impossible-worthy plot to pilfer over 100 lunar samples for his girlfriend — and got away with it. How Roberts and his henchmen managed to break into the space program's headquarters and make off with craggy chunks of the galaxy is as good a suspense story as you'll read this year. Start dreaming up the cast as you read it; you can bet a hundred heartthrobs are already lining up to play Roberts.
The Ledge: An Adventure Story Of Friendship And Survival On Mount Rainier
By Jim Davidson and Kevin Vaughan; hardcover, 288 pages; Ballantine, list price: $26
And now, your winner for the annual Jon Krakauer Award for Scary Things That Happen On Mountains. This well-plotted survival tale about climbing partners and a deadly fall into a crevasse will certainly slake your 127 Hours craving, but it is a unique book on its own, avoiding the thumping cliches of the "rock climbing is dangerous" genre. Nineteen years after the fact, Davidson writes about a terrible accident that took place when he and his best friend, Mike Price, were scaling Mt. Rainier. Davidson took an 80-foot tumble, fatally pulling Price down with him. Battling feelings of profound guilt and fear as he struggled in the icy cold to overcome his own injuries, Davidson had to climb out of the crevasse with his lifeless partner still attached to a rope. With the help of Price's family, Davidson eventually made peace with the tragedy and finds his own form of redemption in retelling the events of that fateful day.
With the help of award-winning Denver Post journalist Kevin Vaughan, Davidson transforms his horrific experience into a graceful, poised narrative that spares no gory detail but never feels mawkish. Davidson's gruesome description of the fall will make you shiver, but the gratitude and hope he now embraces will make you melt.
Summer, when I was a kid, meant weekend road-trips in our family Rambler to sites of historical interest. We'd pack up deviled-ham sandwiches and Cokes and make pilgrimages from our apartment in Queens to Teddy Roosevelt's house on Long Island or Washington Irving's house in Westchester. Sometimes there were longer expeditions to Valley Forge and, once, Williamsburg. I'm not sure how much history I absorbed; I mostly remember a lot of candle-making demonstrations. But, forever after, summer, to me, has been the season for traveling back in time, either by hitting the road or, happily, hitting the books.
The Greater Journey: Americans In Paris
By David McCullough, hardcover, 576 pages, Simon & Schuster, list price: $37.50
David McCullough is about as dependable as they come if you're in the mood for a narrative history that sweeps you, through luscious detail and anecdote, into a bygone age. His beguiling new book is called The Greater Journey and it departs from works like 1776 and John Adams in that it digs deep, not into a historical event or personage, but, rather, into a cultural trend. Between 1830 and 1900, scores of young Americans with ambitions to be painters, architects, doctors and scientists sailed to the Old World to soak up the education the New World couldn't offer.
Or, as McCullough puts it: "Not all pioneers went west." Specifically they traveled to Paris. Some, like Mary Cassatt and Oliver Wendell Holmes, are familiar names; others, like the educator Emma Willard and Mary Putnam — the first American woman to graduate from a French medical school — are revelations. McCullough evokes a vision of early 19th-century Paris crowded with restaurants and gambling houses, but his greatest achievement is the realization he gives readers of how new America still was back then, sans medical schools and serious art academies. He writes of American travelers in the 1830s seeing their first glimpse of the medieval cathedral at Rouen. The Americans were agog, McCullough notes, because:
The largest building in the United States at the time was the Capitol in Washington. ... Even the most venerable houses and churches at home ... dated back only to the mid-17th century. So historic a landmark as Philadelphia's Independence Hall was not yet a hundred years old.
The Final Storm: A Novel Of The War In The Pacific
By Jeff Shaara, paperback, 480 pages, Ballantine Books, list price: $28
McCullough's book is essentially about building civilization; Jeff Shaara's novel, The Final Storm, is about destruction on an almost unfathomable scale. The Final Storm chronicles the Pacific campaign during World War II; it's the fourth in Shaara's series about the war and works both as a standalone novel and as the conclusion to that series. There are no post-modern literary tricks here; instead, Shaara is a master — in the Herman Wouk, Kenneth Roberts mode — of the kind of character-driven, plot-heavy page-turner that most of us think of when we think "historical novel."
In his introduction, Shaara reminds us of some of the staggering numbers of the Pacific Campaign: the two-week assault on Saipan resulted in 14,000 American deaths; Iwo Jima, 26,000 American casualties and only 300 Japanese prisoners taken alive out of the 20,000 defending the island. The Final Storm is a vivid literary addition to films like Letters from Iwo Jima and Flags of Our Fathers — all of which underscore the peculiar brutalities and sometimes under-recognized sacrifices of the War in the Pacific.
Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education Of Two Society Girls In The West
By Dorothy Wickenden, hardcover, 304 pages, Simon & Schuster Adult, list price: $26, pub. date: June 21
My last recommendation is a potentially annoying one because readers will have to sit tight for a couple of weeks before they get their hands on Dorothy Wickenden's "alternative Western" called Nothing Daunted. But, I promise you, it's worth the wait. Wickenden, who is the executive editor of The New Yorker magazine, has written a superb biography that charts the adventures of her grandmother and her grandmother's best friend — society girls and Smith College graduates — who, in the summer of 1916, set out to become schoolteachers in the isolated settlement of Elkhead, Colo. Relying on photographs and letters that the women sent back to their anxious parents in Auburn, N.Y., Wickenden summons up the last moments of frontier life, where books were a luxury and, when blizzards hit, homesteader's children would ski miles to school on curved barrel staves. David McCullough may tell us that "Not all pioneers went west," but some unlikely ones sure did, and Nothing Daunted also reminds us that different strains of courage can be found, not just on the battlefield, but on the home front, too.