Simply Lost (and Book Review #9)

by Donna McLaughlin Schwender

Barbara Newhall Follett

Barbara Newhall Follett – freckles and a feather quill pen.

(A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned how many of my book reviews for this year would likely be for older books. When I made that comment, I had no idea just how old some of them would be.)

Try to imagine back to when you were eight years old. Try to imagine that you want to present your mother with a unique gift on what would be your ninth birthday. That’s right…your birthday, not hers. Try to imagine that gift as being a story – hand-typed over the course of three months on a typewriter your father had given you  – with a final word count of approximately 40,000 words. Try to imagine that story (which is really a novel at that length) – the only copy in existence having been edited by you for seven more months because your father thought it was worthy of being preserved in print – going up in flames the night before it was finally scheduled to be printed and bound. Try to imagine one final thing…spending the next three years of your young life trying to recreate the entire story from memory to finally see it released as a book by Knopf Publishing just several weeks before your twelfth birthday.

Raccoon CoverI have a difficult time simply trying to remember my life as an eight-year-old. Rummaging through an old box of papers, it looks like my best work at that age was a report about raccoons that I wrote as a student in Mrs. Pulford’s third-grade class. In it, I made such wise observations as, “Some people think raccoons are stupid…Raccoons footprints look like young childrens handprints (geez – I omitted both apostrophes)…It uses its feet to walk on…They are born with lungs.” Is there any wonder why I earned an “A” for such “brilliant” thoughts (envision a sarcasm emoticon here)? And in case you’re also wondering, my memory ages as I do, but I distinctly remember tracing a photo of a raccoon to create that fine piece of artwork you see; drawing was never in my artistic realm.

Back to the main story though. What I’ve described above is actually the true story of author Barbara Newhall Follett and her book, “The House Without Windows and Eepersip’s Life There,” that was released to rave reviews in 1927 (yes – you read that correctly; eighty-nine years ago). A recent email I received from NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) introduced me to Follett via an article that Lapham’s Quarterly published about her in 2010. Within such an essay, Paul Collins, NPR’s “literary detective,” relayed the sad tale about the child prodigy who published two books before she turned fifteen and who then disappeared in 1939 at the age of twenty-five, never to be heard from again. NPR’s five-minute-long radio segment provides a good synopsis about Follett’s life, if you’d prefer to listen to the quick audio version that can be found here.

The abbreviated written version is that Follett’s short life was filled with hardships she couldn’t have foreseen at such a young age. Her father was Wilson Follett, a well-known editor and writer of “Follett’s Modern American Usage,” a book that’s still published today. Her mother was Helen Thomas Follett, a travel writer who also published two books during her lifetime. In 1928, just weeks before Barbara’s fourteenth birthday and the release of her second book, “The Voyage of the Norman D.,” Wilson Follett left his wife and daughter for another woman. Helen and Barbara were tossed into almost immediate poverty.

The final eleven years of Barbara’s life included running away, being forced to spend the majority of her writing time as a paid typist during the Great Depression, and marrying a man whom she came to believe was cheating on her. On December 7, 1939, after arguing with her husband, she reportedly left their apartment with $30 and her notebook. There is no evidence of her existence beyond that date.

Why am I mentioning her here now, nearly seventy-seven years after her disappearance? Why have I given today’s blog post the title of “Simply Lost?” What’s the point of all these words lined up in neat little rows?

My own story – or at least the version I’ve been telling myself for decades – always included a work-at-home mother that forbid me to touch her typewriter as “it wasn’t for writing silly little tales” and a wanna-be-writer father who read the first diary I ever decided to keep when I was a junior in high school and who confessed his deed to me simply because he wanted me to know that “not every story should see the light of day, nor is every one worth the piece of paper you waste writing it down.” In the happier version of my rewritten life, I’ve always imagined that having a more supportive mother and father would have been all (or at least the majority of “all”) that was needed for me to be a successful writer by this stage of my life. (Interesting that, while writing this post, I received an email that made the following observation, “Success is not being done; not being complete. Success is still dreaming and feeling positive in the unfolding.” Perhaps it’s my definition of success that needs tweaking.)

The older I get, the more unrealistic I realize the stories are that I’ve created for myself. It took reading Barbara Newhall Follett’s short biography though to finally dislodge a major chunk of my own story’s slowly-crumbling foundation. My characters might have been real, but the plot was continually growing weaker and the protagonist wasn’t showing any signs of growth. As the author, even I was growing bored of the storyline.

So yes…you could say that I’ve been “simply lost” in pursuing my own writing for quite some time now. Not like Follett probably felt though. I don’t want to run away, as was the main theme for almost all of her written work. I also don’t plan on disappearing as she did.

I’m not a big fan of New Year’s resolutions, but for the last several years, I’ve chosen a single word to focus on throughout the months. This year, it was going to be either “balance” or “reclaim,” but it appears that those words have quickly morphed into “simple” – especially as it keeps appearing here in my posts.

As much as I admire Follett, “the small typist [that – on her big days] clicked off fresh copy to the extent of from four to five thousand words…,” that will likely never be the reality of my writing world. Knowing that, I’m trying to define “simple” – at least as it applies to my current writing habits (or lack thereof somedays) – as “simply” continuing to show up and to write for as long as I can, as well as I can, and to not get bogged down in the numbers, the distractions, and any other false stories I might want to weave for my shortcomings.

As Wilson Follett commented in his daughter’s book, “One of the great objects of imaginative writing, I take it, is to have joy. Another, wholly separable from the first, is to learn as you go.” I’d like to believe that I’m not opposed to still learning as I go (even if it still involves when and where to use an apostrophe). In the end, maybe it really is about “balance” and “reclaiming” ones space in life. Maybe being “lost” isn’t always such a bad thing. Maybe being lost is how we find our truest self.

Eepersip CoverYou can download “The House Without Windows and Eepersip’s Life There” in four different formats (i.e., PDF, ePub, Modi, and Word Document) by going here. Described as “an imaginative child’s name for the world of untouched nature – because that world is itself nothing but one clear window upon beauty, which is a child’s reality…,” you might want to begin by reading the section near the end entitled “Historical Note” that was written by Follett’s father. I think it helps set the stage for the fantastical land that his daughter has created. And if you’re curious about my “official” rating of the book…in comparing it to what I would expect a twelve-year-old to write, it would be off the charts, but I gave it “4 Stars” on Goodreads. Yes…it contains some potentially repetitious descriptions and not-so-realistic happenings (remember, it’s a child’s fantasy), but it’s also laced with lovely passages like this, “That night a bird of modest wood-colour, with speckled breast, sang of moonlight; and, rippling faintly, softly, came echoes from his silver-tongued mate. They sang, and they answered, and the moon-frost-tipped pines were quiet, and clouds floated near, snowy palaces of silence. Spellbound, Eepersip was borne away to fairy kingdoms where she danced – and where birds sang the only melody in the world.”