REVIEW by Jane MacNamee

NWR Issue r35

The House Without Windows

by Barbara Newhall Follett (text), Jackie Morris (illustrations)

This is the enchanting tale of Eepersip, a rather lonely little girl who lives with her parents in the foothills of Mount Varcrobis. One day, she decides to head out on her own, without telling anyone, to explore the wilderness beyond the confines of the house and garden. Once she discovers the freedom of the woods, and the delights of the meadows, sea and mountains, she just keeps on going, ‘her loneliness decreased’, as happy as the butterflies and birds. Distraught by her disappearance, her parents set out to find her and bring her home, but in spite of their increasingly elaborate schemes to catch her, she escapes time and again. All Eepersip wants is a house without windows, or as Jackie Morris writes in her introduction to this new and beautifully illustrated edition, ‘A Wild of One’s Own’: a desire shared by her creator, Barbara Newhall Follett.

Born in 1914 into a literary family in New Hampshire, Barbara was an independent spirit and a lover of nature and books in equal measure. She was only four when she sneaked off with her father’s typewriter, and nine when she completed the original version of The House Without Windows, as a gift for her mother. Undaunted when the manuscript was destroyed in a house fire shortly afterwards, she rewrote it, completing it when she was twelve. A huge success on publication in 1927, it became a bestseller and its author declared a child genius. Just over a decade later, aged twenty-five and unsettled perhaps both in her working life and married domesticity, Barbara walked out of her apartment with only a few dollars in her pocket one day in December, and disappeared without trace. The mystery has never been solved.

The story of Eepersip and her author caught the attention of critically acclaimed writer and artist Jackie Morris, when she came across an early review of the book by Eleanor Farjeon. With admiration and respect for the talents of its young writer, Farjeon praised it as ‘bathed in a magical light’. It is this light, the vibrancy Eepersip perceives in fireflies, gleaming icicles and the flaming gold of the sun that, Morris writes, ‘sings to my soul across an ocean, across a century’. It celebrates freedom, ‘aloneness’ rather than loneliness, and the happiness of the child singing and dancing by herself and also in quieter moments of solitude out in the wilderness.

With the book now back in print, Jackie Morris, creator of over forty children’s books, brings the same magical light to a contemporary readership, her ink and water drawings imbued with the vital energy and movement of the narrative. She is hopeful, as she writes in her introduction, that Barbara would be pleased with what she has done and, secondly, that we might focus our attention not so much on Barbara’s absence, but on her presence in the pages in front of us. And, what a presence it is, embodied in a fearless child, brimming with the wonders of her unstoppable imagination, and a fierce defender of her freedom to live in the wild. Eepersip, as Morris finds, is so striking in being inseparable from the natural world she comes to inhabit, making a winter home in a fox hole, sleeping in sea caves or beneath blankets of snow. She approaches the wild creatures around her, from the deer to the grasshoppers, befriending them as equals without fear or the need, Morris notes, to ‘humanise’ them. They, in turn, accept her as their own.

As we follow her through the colours and textures of the changing seasons, we witness how Eepersip becomes more absorbed into the natural world where she belongs: learning to forage and live on wild food and fashioning clothes from ferns, or seaweed from the sea’s edge. With each new discovery, she is curious for the next, reaching the end of one journey and beginning another up on the snow-covered mountain peaks in the realm of wind sprites. There, surrounded by frost feathers, her human form becoming lighter and lighter, she transforms into the spirit of Nature itself, invisible to mortals, ‘save those few who have minds to believe, and eyes to see.’

It is that spirit of nature, transcending time and place, which sparks the untamed joy of youthful imagination in us all, young and old. It is the same spirit that we are opening our eyes to today, as we come to understand more fully how inseparable humanity is from the natural world. We have a lot to learn it seems, from the magical tale of Eepersip, written by a girl wise beyond her years. As Jackie Morris concludes with great insight: ‘Looking around at the human-dominated world our children will inherit, it’s a powerfully utopian vision of how things might otherwise be.’

Jane MacNamee writes on nature, travel and literature. Her column on foraging wild garlic is about to come back into season Wild Garlic.

The House Without Windows, written by Barbara Newhall Follett, introduced and illustrated by Jackie Morris, was published by Hamish Hamilton in 2019, ISBN: 9780241389812, £12.99.


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