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Falling Through the Cracks: Barbara Newhall Follett

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Pajiba Storytellers | March 9, 2011 | Comments ()


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Storytellers is an ongoing attempt to tease out bits of history or literature that would make damned good films. Because if we throw enough ideas out there, Hollywood might accidentally make something good.

"My dreams are going through their death flurries...they are dying before the steel javelins and arrows of a world of Time and Money." -Barbara Newhall Follett

It's said one of the most terrible fates is to be born out of time and place. Geeks like to think that if they'd only been born a few hundred years previously, they'd be the ones to watch the apple drop or fly the electric kite. Really most of them would be dead by age 20. Not because geeks are inherently less durable, but because everyone's survival rate diminishes as the clock is turned back before antibiotics and germ theory, let alone notions of equal opportunity. The greatest violinist in history probably starved to death in the burned fields of some ancient war or another, having never heard a note of music. Some of the greatest writers died illiterate in plague-choked hovels, and surely mathematicians to shake the foundations of Euclid never learned to count past their ten fingers since the fields needed plowed and they hadn't a drop of good blood in their veins. But we somehow think that we've moved past all that. And it's true, the world is better than it was a few centuries ago, and the increasing divorce of birth from fate is not just a happy effect of that improvement, but a prime cause.

But such terrible waste still happens, people sliding to the margins and down through the cracks. Genius is no proof against it. Einstein missed the ovens by a generation. Disease no westerner need worry about struck down Ramanujan when he was 32. Turing invented the computer age and was murdered by society for being gay. But there's also a second tier, the individuals who clattered down through those cracks before they made their mark, before their names became immortal. Barbara Newhall Follett was one of those souls, a child prodigy whose father bought her a typewriter at age eight, who published two novels before she was fourteen and is now all but forgotten.

The story proceeds in two parts: the construction of a genius, and its destruction.

Follett's father was an editor and his daughter took to writing the way baseball players' kids take to playing catch. She began her first novel, The House Without Windows when she was eight years old, and four years later it was published to widespread critical praise. The consensus seemed to be that the novel was brilliant on its own, not just impressive for the author's age, but impressive as a work of fiction in and of itself. Less than two years later, her second book, The Voyage of the Norman D was published to similar praise. The two books are dramatically different in thrust though, the first telling a story of childhood fantasy, while the second she researched by finding work on a lumber boat at the ripe age of thirteen.

That was the last novel she published though, since that was the year in which her father turned forty and left her mother for a younger woman. Left with little money in the midst of the Great Depression, Follett never finished high school and began working at age 16 as a secretary, since writing didn't earn any money but it did provide excellent typing skills. She wrote in her spare time, producing two more books before she turned 20 though they were never submitted to publishers. She eloped at age nineteen and in 1939 after an argument with her husband, she disappeared. Her husband waited two weeks until he called the police, and four months before he bothered filing a missing persons report.

The two novels that she published have been out of print for more than forty years, and all that remains of her writing legacy are six boxes of papers in a library at Columbia University. She was supposed to be America's next great writer and instead she disappeared into the night and no one even looked for her.

It's the sort of story that fits perfectly into a relatively low budget indie mold. And to cast it cynically into the sort of arguments that sway studios to devoting energy and budgets: it's one of those stories that they could tell for very little money, but they could leverage just so that it appeals both to the children quadrant of their flowchart and the women quadrant. And people of all ages and gender with taste, but we know that's not on the studio flow chart because marketing assures them that the group is too small to bother targeting.

The trouble with stories like this is that there tends to be a need to cast at least two actors to play the role of child and adult. It requires suspension of disbelief, and there's always a disconnect for the audience in the switching. The story ends up needing to have a jump in time, and what was seamless in script transitions into something with two-parts on screen. This role fits just so precisely into a certain age range that if they cast the right actress, they could get away with no switching at all. Cast a teenage actress, one who both takes acting seriously and eyes those low-rent roles that get critical praise. The two that spring to mind are Chloe Moretz and Dakota Fanning, skinny wisps who could pull off any age from ten to twenty-five in the right light.

There are two inherent problems with doing this in general: in early scenes the actress looks too old, and in later scenes almost disturbingly young. In this particular story though, those weaknesses enhance the telling of the story because the character herself is strangely intelligent and mature for her age at the beginning, and yet as the tale creeps towards its end, it becomes one of tragic lost innocence.

The other element to making the film work is to add a story-within-a-story element. Follett's first novel is haunting in retrospect, the story of a child who disappears into the woods, seeing things that other children do not see, eventually fading away entirely to become a creature of the forest, lost to her family. Done well, with reality and the novel reinforcing each other in layers, it can make the ending a truly gut wrenching experience. And that level also tosses the studio a bone, so that they can tell themselves that they're going to market this as a Narnia sort of thing.

And the closing scene is one of exquisite sadness, of the six boxes gathering dust at Columbia, the forgotten legacy of one who slipped through the cracks. Her father, who broke her so badly, wrote these harrowing words a year later in an essay titled "To a Daughter, One Year Lost": "Could Helen Hayes be lost for ten days without a trace? Could Thomas Mann? Could Churchill? And now it is getting on toward forty times ten days..."

"Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up." -Picasso

(for a fantastic take on Follett's life, check out Paul Collins' extensive article on Lapham's Quarterly)

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.




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