This post’s title is a quote from Dorothy Wickenden’s book Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West, a biography of Dorothy Woodruff (the author’s grandmother) and Rosamond Underwood who in 1916 left their upper-class lives of teas and socials in New York to teach in a Colorado school for a year– far, far away from the comforts of home. Nothing impelled them to go; they were college educated, unmarried, and bored. The wilds of the still untamed West sounded like an adventure. And it was. Thrust into a world more foreign than the Grand Tour of Europe, the girls, with their charm, wit, and grace, embraced it all: the landscape, the people, their students. Their experience challenged them, and through the community, its children, and the wild terrain, they learned the true meanings of work, tenacity, and survival. Later they described their year in Colorado as being the best in their lives. It also prepared them for the challenges of life outside of their parents’ money and close knit community. Both experienced immense struggles and heartbreak later in their lives, but they “dealt with it”.
I read Nothing Daunted right after finishing Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies, a novel about the Mirabal sisters in the Dominican Republic who fight against Trujillo in the 1950’s. Like Woodruff and Underwood, the sisters gave up their lives of comfort, but this time for a principle rather than boredom. Through the use of facts, documents, and interviews, Alvarez presents a fictionalized account of how Minerva, Patria, and Maria Teresa (Mate) each come to the realization that they must fight against Trujillo’s regime, one of the most bloody in Latin America, and their transformation into las Mariposas— the Butterflies. Dede, the fourth sister, whose domineering husband and own need to not “rock the boat” prevent her from joining up with her sisters, is left to tell their story. Each woman “took life by the throat and dealt with it”. Each understood the meaning of their commitment– destruction of possessions and property, prison, torture, death, and the fact that someone else would live to take care of their children. While they are single-minded in their battle against Trujillo, their journey into the revolution breaks down their pride– whether it be their pride of family, God, status, or marriage. Alvarez develops the theme of appearances and what is “buried” underneath– the outward revolution against the regime leads to inward revolutions as each questions what she knew of life before.
These women’s stories inspire me. Woodruff, Underwood, and I are much closer in spirit– I am always looking for the next adventure. But I wonder if I have the same tenacity of spirit and dedication to ideals as the Mirabal sisters. Could I put a principle above my life? Would I? Woodruff and Underwood had the luxury to make their choices– a warm bed and a cushy life would always be there to welcome them home. In Trujillo’s Dominican Republic the choice is not as cut and dry. As Elie Wiesel said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” To live life as the status quo may prevent one from getting into trouble, but it is not a guarantee for safety. It might leave one with a warm home, but a cold conscience. In a regime as cruel as Trujillo’s (or any regime for that matter), where people were killed or disappeared as a matter of routine, the sisters’ ambush and murder might seem in vain. By the time of their deaths they were revered national symbols of the revolution, and their deaths inspired Trujillo’s future assassins. In the end, they achieved their goal. I’d like to think that if I had to fight for what I believed in that I would do so with as much humanity and courage as they did. They knew the risks of their decisions; they knew what they were giving up; they “took life by the throat and dealt with it”.