When Barbara Newhall Follett was four, she snuck into her father’s study and stole his typewriter.
She went on to compose stories and poems about her love of nature.
Then, when she was just eight, she decided to give her mother the gift of a novel. It was her custom to give her mom a gift on her own birthday, and she was about to turn nine.
Because she was homeschooled she had plenty of time to write, and set to work.
Over to The Guardian to describe what came next:
Day after day, week after week, she wrote. She hoped to make a handful of copies, to share with friends, but the original copy was for her mother. It was a story about a small child in the wilderness. It was called The House Without Windows.
Just a few days after she completed the novel, a fire broke out in the kitchen that destroyed the house and everything in it, including Barbara’s manuscript.
Immediately she began the long task of reconstructing her story, word by carefully chosen word, from memory. Three years she spent, sometimes leaving her text for months at a time, but always returning to it, frustrated and determined in equal measure. Eventually, she stopped trying to remember the original and began to imagine anew, letting her mind run wild once again.
Barbara wrote of a little girl called Eepersip, who loves the outdoors as much as she did, who doesn’t want to be confined in a house with walls and windows, binding her life. The world of brick and glass is too restrictive for the wild child, and Eepersip longs to shed the trappings of civilisation. So she runs away from home. She runs first to the meadow, then to the sea, and last to the mountains, and she gives her heart in equal measure to all of them. She lives in these wild places without fear, learning how to be free, and she sees joy and glory everywhere.
That’s pretty deep for a nine-year-old.
She completed the novel again in 1926 when she was 12. Her father was so impressed that he took the manuscript to work with him. At that time, he worked for the publisher Alfred Knopf. They were clearly impressed, too, because they offered to publish it.
Imagine the excitement when a blue letter arrived, and within it the offer to publish Barbara’s story: 2,500 copies were printed, and all sold out. Her story of Eepersip and her life in the house without windows went on to become a bestseller, and Barbara was hailed as a child genius.
Success with a first novel is an unusual thing. Success at the age of 12 is almost unheard of. A child who had led a solitary life, Barbara took this success in her stride…
But, like all good writers, by the time The House Without Windows was published she had already fallen in love again. This time, it was with the sea. She had begun work on a book about pirates.
She realised after trying to write for a while that she needed some real-world experience so, at the age of 13, she signed up as the cabin “boy” on a ship bound for Nova Scotia.
A few months later she returned and handed in the manuscript of her second book, The Voyage of the Norman D.
By 18, Barbara was hiking the Appalachian Trail in the company of a young man called Nickerson Rogers, each night sharing his small tent or lying together beneath the ceiling of stars. Later they travelled to Europe, wandering through Spain, France, Germany, sometimes working, always writing, keeping notes for future manuscripts…
On their return to America they settled into an apartment, marrying in 1934 and taking jobs. And Barbara began to feel her dreams slipping away to the familiar tune of work and domesticity. She still wrote, but her work was no longer in favour with publishers and the rejections hurt.
And then, in 1939, on 7 December, Barbara Rogers, née Newhall Follett, walked out of the apartment she shared with her husband. She left no note, took only a few dollars and some shorthand notes.
She was never seen again.
For decades, people have searched for some clue as to where she went with no success.
Let’s hope she found somewhere to write.
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