Sometimes, the story behind a story can be just as interesting as the story itself. The weird but wonderful novel The Wake is a case in point, with the background and context of the book as compelling as the story itself (here’s my review). Similarly with the haunting film Leave No Trace, the film’s inspiration lingers as much as its content (again, here’s my review).
It’s also the case with one of my other recent reads, a beautiful novel called The House Without Windows by Barbara Newhall Follett. And what drew me into it was as much the author’s story as the one contained within its pages.
Barbara Newhall Follett disappeared at the age of 25 in 1939, having lived a short but extraordinary life. A skilled writer, her first book The House Without Windows was published when she was twelve, and it is a mesmerising paean to the natural world, childhood innocence and a carefree spirit of adventure.
It tells the story of a young girl called Eepersip who lives in the foothills of the fictitious Mount Varcrobis – an idyllic land where Eepersip appears to relish the beautiful countryside around her. But one day, she decides she wants to live closer to that nature and so runs away from home. The book moves through three sections – meadow, sea and mountain – reflecting her adventures.
It’s a curious story, and on one level – with the partypooping eyes of a cynical grown-up reader – a ridiculous one. Eepersip has a schmaltzy, Disney-esque relationship with animals she meets, seems impervious to the cold of winter or the waves of stormy seas, and appears to live off nothing more than roots. She also rather heartlessly refuses to return to or even engage with her family – where her upbringing has hardly seemed oppressive – even briefly abducting her little sister to join her in her adventures. The reader’s sympathy for Eespersip does grow over the story, admittedly, due to her parents’ increasingly crazed (and failed) attempts to effectively kidnap her from her new life of freedom, her “house without windows”.
But to analyse the story on such a grumpy and prosaic level is to miss the point about why the book is so impressive. The House Without Windows captivates not for a solid, believable plot (though the narrative, for its absurdity, certainly flows well and is charming), but for its soaring, poetic writing. From an adult, Barbara Newhall Follett’s grasp of words and interpretation of nature (even an embellished one) would be impressive. From a child, it is extraordinary.
So imagine how much better her next book was – a novel written when she was fourteen and apparently inspired by her time spent working on a ship in Canada. Or how good her writing as an adult would be, from the time she spent travelling in North America and Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. If her trajectory had continued, perhaps Barbara Newhall Follett have become one of the USA’s greatest novelists and travel writers. As it is, her literary output was cut short when she disappeared aged 25 in 1939, with no conclusive evidence about what happened.
Indeed, it looks like a lot of her life story and writing would have been lost to history were it not for the diligent work of a descendent who has created a website, Farksolia, named after an imaginary world she created as a child. There, he has gathered her stories, travelogues, letters and much more, along with his own analysis and reflections plus his theories about her disappearance. It’s well worth losing yourself for a few hours in that site, a painstaking and loving tribute to someone who had a clear gift of imagination and worthsmithery. Her Wikipedia entry is also good for a more concise primer.
While we can easily wonder how much greater a writer Barbara Newhall Follett would have gone on to be, her disappearance, like that of the main character in The House Without Windows, seems to have characterised and overshadowed her short life.