A Mirror of the Child Mind
THE HOUSE WITHOUT WINDOWS AND EEPERSIP’S LIFE THERE
By Barbara Newhall Follett. 166 pp. New York: Alfred
A. Knopf. $2.
Reviewed by Henry Longan Stuart. New York Times, February 6, 1927
In a “historical note” appended to “The House Without Windows” the father of the young author lets us into the secret of the happy accident to which we owe what may prove to be the most authentic and unalloyed document of a transient and hitherto unrecorded phase in plastic intelligence. “Almost above all,” says Mr. Wilson Follett (he has been telling of such special circumstances as a home education between child and parents in the great out of doors), “having used a typewriter as a plaything for a time she cannot remember, who was able to rattle off an easy 1,200 words an hour, without any awareness of the physical process, years before penmanship could have developed half the proficiency, even with intense concentration on the physical process alone.” Among all the implications to which this truly remarkable little book will give rise, the hint that a drudgery which invention has outdated may be slowing down mental processes at a critical mental age deserves at least a place.
In the mere theme of “The House Without Windows”–a little girl who escapes from her home with the entire heartlessness and heedlessness as to how others may feel about it which is so astonishing a trait in the immature, and becomes by turn a dryad and naiad in the woods and sea–there is no suspicion, as Mr. Follett very accurately points out, of precociousness. The mind of childhood is pantheistic. It invests the living creatures which come under its observation with all the qualities that its own little code of conduct have taught it to consider praiseworthy. It has a passion for smallness and snugness that is its subconscious defensive reaction to the girth and bulkiness that hems in its own little life and swoops upon it menacingly at bedtime and mealtime. The nest in the fork of the tree to which no grown person can climb, the squirrel’s hole or the mole’s run, at whose entry the grown person stands helpless, appear to it the most delicious retreats possible, and a conviction that it has been given the freedom of this diminutive world as a main element in the genesis of the fairy story, so far at least as children have invented it for themselves.
What is the most remarkable in the story of nine-year-old Barbara Follett’s heroine is that recourse is never once made to this order of fairy folk, who can, as it were, deputize the craving of a child to enter into the freer life of nature. From the moment of her escape on “the foothills of Mount Varcobis” to the last line of the book, Eepersip is the protagonist of her own adventure. No attempt is made to invest the birds and beasts that become her friends with any human attributes, far less human speech. An unbridled imagination is checked at every moment by a literalness of description that is apparently the amazing fruit of keen first-hand observation. On the one hand, the feeling of liberation can grow at times to something very like ecstasy. “The farther she went the more her heart began to leap within her joy in the life she was finding for herself” … “It seemed to happy Eepersip that all the wild was ready to make friends, as if nothing were afraid of her.” … “Great waves of happiness were flowing through her all the time.” On the other hand, at the moment when she is taking up her quarters in “a snug bedroom about five feet square and four and a half high” in a fox burrow, there can be the prim note: “The cordary berry grows during the Winter and is at its best at New Year. The seeds have sweet meats,” &c. The strange mingling of an extravagance which sets natural law is defiance and of the most minute descriptiveness is particularly noticeable in the chapter entitled “The Sea.” Eepersip, at home in the water from her first plunge as any fish, not to say mermaid, loses no opportunity to describe her new ambient. She notes that the loose sand is “like pepper,” a simile that alone is a guarantee of authenticity. Lying on a rock, she watches the gold and silver fish swimming across its shadow: “She observed how they nosed down and fed on the cozy sea plants on the bottom, which were covered with silver oxygen bubbles.” Barbara Follett may live and write to 90. But she will never give us the flight of sea birds more truly and vividly than in these dozen and a half words she wrote at the time: “Strong, narrow wings that beat down the air as the birds rose again, to hover and swoop and plunge.” “Beat down the air” for the motion of a hovering gull is more than an adequate phrase. It is the “inevitable” word upon which so many words have been spent. Here and there, too, like the silk thread of water mark on real paper money are the adorable naîvetés which remind us a child is writing: “Before long all the birds loved Snowflake–something that few kittens have attained!”
It is hard not to wax enthusiastic over this wonderful little book, bearing, as it does, every evidence, even in its meticulous literacy, that it is the fruit of one of those impulses which, as the young author’s father notes, “mostly fade into the light of common day a year or two before the dawn of that amount of mechanical articulacy which is necessary for a tangible expression of them,” and which, consequently, “are almost never expressed.” There can be few who have not at one time or another coveted the secret, innocent and wild at the same time, of a child’s heart. And here is little Miss Barbara Follett, holding the long-defended gate wide open and letting us enter and roam at our will over enchanted ground. And a typewriter did all this!
With thanks to Bruce for sending me his copy of the review.