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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

Gilbert: Prodigy

Barbara Follett was a child prodigy novelist. She was born in Hanover, New Hampshire a hundred years ago, in 1914. Her parents were both distinguished teachers, writers, and literary critics; when she was born, her father was teaching English at Dartmouth.

She was writing poetry at four and lengthy stories at five. When she was not yet nine, she finished her first novel, The House Without Windows, an escapist tale of a young girl’s journey from civilization into nature, to the meadow, sea, and mountains, a fantasy full of flowers, ferns and fairies. Unfortunately, the only copy literally went up in smoke in a house fire. She rewrote it, and when she was twelve, it was published, to rave reviews.

The New York Times called it “The most authentic and unalloyed document of a transient and hitherto unrecorded phase of plastic intelligence...” From London, the Times Literary Supplement gushed, “Its ingeniousness is preserved, yet embellished, by a literary craftsmanship which would do credit to an experienced writer.” And the eminent critic H.L. Menken considered her a singular talent.

Like many people of all ages, Barbara dreamt of going to sea. Her parents got her on a three-mast schooner headed for Nova Scotia; she helped with chores on board. She turned her real-life adventure into another novel, The Voyage of the Norman D, another critical success.

But just before the book’s publication, at her moment of great success, her father announced that he was leaving Barbara and her mother for a younger woman. The beloved parent who had done so much to nurture her love of writing abandoned her.

Barbara and her mother were left with little money and the Great Depression on the way. At twenty she married a man she’d met while living with her mother in a cabin in Vermont; he’d been a Dartmouth student who shared her love of adventure, hiking, camping, and canoeing. They settled in Brookline, Massachusetts. By the time she was twenty she’d written yet another novel and a travelogue about hiking the Appalachian Trail - the first of many. Its title, Travels Without a Donkey, is an allusion to young Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels With a Donkey in the Cevennes, an early literary account of camping and hiking as recreation.

But it was not to last. In 1939, she believed that her husband was seeing another woman, and blamed herself. On December 7, 1939, seventy-five years ago today, she and her husband quarreled; she walked out of their apartment, and was never heard from again. Whether she’d run away or been the victim of foul play no one knows. She was just twenty-five.

Peter Gilbert is executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.
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