‘The House Without Windows’ has all the echoes of modern day nature writers such as Robert Macfarlane and Isabella Tree, except it was published in 1927…and it was written by a 12 year old girl. ‘The House Without Windows’ is the story of Eepersip – a young girl who, feeling trapped and lonely in her simple life with her parents in her normal house, runs away to live in the wild.
Barbara Newhall Follett started writing the story originally when she was only 10 as a birthday present for her mother. However, the manuscript was tragically destroyed in an accident near completion. Barbara then began the laborious task of piecing the story back together from memory. The perseverance of this 11 year old (by now) is phenomenal! Her father was working for the publisher Alfred Knopf at the time and was so impressed by his daughters work that he took it to work with him, only for Knopf to arrange the publication of 2,500 copies – all selling out 2 weeks before the scheduled publication date!
Eepersips story is told in a similar way to that of a Fairy Tale. It has a hypnotic bedtime story feel to the way the plotline unfolds, in the stages of her journey, from meadow to sea to mountain. Whether wholly intentional or not (one of the great and puzzling questions of many works of literature that we will never truly know the answer to), the writing is deeply metaphorical, and consequently, open to multiple interpretations. Here, I intend to share mine with you.
The nature of this review is to start a discussion and encourage you to read ‘The House Without Windows’, and explore your interpretation of the story. In sharing my views to open the ground for that discussion I would like to warn you that there will be spoilers. So, feel free to read on or…read the book and come back!
First of all, I found myself worrying about Eepersips welfare for much of the novel (I guess that was my practical mind getting carried away!), I couldn’t help but worry that she would die of cold in her fern dress in the winter, be swept out to sea on her raft in the storm, get trapped by the tide (or worse) in her cave hide-out on the beach…the list goes on! However, looking back, the writing really seems to reflect the fearlessness of a 10-12 year old. This is the world through the eyes of Eepersip/Barbara, who sees only beauty and wonder and whose spirit is not hampered by wariness or caution. Aspects that so many adults don’t carry through from their childhood – the ability to live in the present moment.
From this realistic, somewhat laughable perspective, the absurdity of some of the elements of the story had me thinking of Astrid Lindgren’s ‘Pippi Longstocking’ who was so strong she could lift a horse (Eepersip can hurdle a fully grown deer) and lived all alone in Villa Villekulla with no parents and a monkey (Eepersip lives in the wild, all alone with a pet chipmunk and a kitten) – a gorgeous book, I must do a review! In particular, the attempts to capture Eepersip reminded me of the police chase in Pippi’s garden. Pippi herself, like Eepersip pulls some fantastic stunts! In fact, I was so convinced that Barbara had been influenced by ‘Pippi Longstockimg’ that I had to double check the publication date. Only to discover that she can’t have been…’Pippi Longstocking’ wasn’t published until 1945…18 years after ‘The House Without Windows’. However, I should also add that I did see a more sinister side to the attempts to capture Eepersip. I saw Eepersips wild spirit and unpredictable nature treated in the way that people treat wild animals. Inhuman methods of trapping and capturing what they do not understand – trying to tame it into a form that they do. Here, I felt that Eepersip demonstrated character resilience in continuing to fight back and protect what she believed in, despite attampts to thwart her everywhere she turned.
Going back to the idea of metaphorical writing, I will share some of the imagery in Eepersips story that spoke to me. At the time of reading, the over riding metaphorical theme was that of growing up. With the meadow, the sea and the mountain loosely representing the different stages of life.
The Meadow = the gently undulating fields of infancy – all soft adventure and merriment, playing in the long grass, learning about the world around you and seeing the future only as a distant view on the horizon from time to time.
The Sea = the wild adventurous spirit of adolescence, riding the waves and bargaining with the tide – a reckless, push-the-boundary lifestyle – constantly testing your limits.
The Mountain = a steady climb into adulthood, a test of endurance and stamina. Rocky pathways but scattered with hardy blooms and when the clouds part – the occasional breath taking view.
The way she moves into each of these stages is also fascinating. Here Eepersip talks of leaving the meadow for the sea;
In spite of all this merriment, Eepersip had a slightly sad feeling in her heart. The night before, she had seen the sea; and it had looked so glorious that she felt as if – as if she would like to go to it. She loved the meadow so much that this would be impossible for her. Yet she knew that in spite of her love for the meadow, her longing for the sea would grow, and that one day she must leave her present home.Follett, B. and Morris, J. (2019). The house without windows. Penguin Random House UK, pp.79, 80.
It reminds me of something a good friend once told me; And then came the day when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.
Each of these stages also explore methods for overcoming the challenges we face in life. For example, in the storm at sea, Eepersip clings to her raft – riding the tide and waiting for the storm to pass. In the mountains, the journey/life is unpredictable and fast changing (we see this visualised in particular with the weather); just when you think you have got your bearings – everything changes again. But you look for beauty everyday (Eepersip is constantly marvelling at the smallest of details around her) and shelter when you need it. I know it’s impossible to survive a blizzard by laying down in the snow and waiting to be buried by it…wearing only leaves..! – but you get the metaphor! I think most importantly of all was the message to never stop climbing; not with the focus of reaching the top but because you appreciate the journey. Notice how the mountain peak is an ever retreating landmark at this point in the story, that the mist obscures much of the view…a reminder to make the most of what you’ve got. The presence of fairies increases throughout the novel but by the time we reach the mountains they are at their most prominent – Eepersip is seeing them everywhere. I felt that the message here was the importance of ‘believeing’ in what sense of the word that means to you personally. The importance of continuing to ‘believe’ as you make your way into adulthood.
As I was reading the mountain stage I found myself constantly thinking, ‘Where will she go from the top? Where do you go once you’ve reached your goal?’ The more I thought about this the more I realised what sort of mindset the 21st century is built around. Career planning, targets, goals, ladder climbing – you get the gist. The value of simply being present has been somewhat pushed to one side in terms of value.
Interestingly, a recurring theme in the story was that of responsibility. At the start of the book, during her meadow ‘infancy’, her responsibility takes on the form of caring for the chipmunk and the kitten. This is played out in the way a child might play with a dolly – founded purely on love and a need to nurture. She fights for what she feels is rightfully hers and won’t let anyone take them from her. Until she enters the sea ‘adolescence’ where she abruptly looses all responsibility, striding off alone into the unknown without looking back. In her life of risks she doesn’t include anyone else and remains alone and responsibility free. The friend she does make at this time she makes no attempt to nurture wanting only company and to do things her way. When she finally begins the mountain journey of ‘adulthood’, she starts out with her little sister in tow. However, responsibility is on a whole new level here, effecting her life in an un-thought of way, raising the question of how hard you work to keep someone who doesn’t want to be there? How much do you compromise who you are to keep that person? Should you? What is the right thing to do? In the end Eepersip takes her sister home and walks the mountains alone…
After reading the last page all I could think was – what a beautiful ending. The writing reaches a fever pitch of immersion in beauty, happiness and magic. And as Eepersip learns to be at one with herself and her environment, she is likewise rewarded.
In conclusion, I feel that ‘The House Without Windows’ acts as a kind of mirror. The way you interpret it depends who you are and what is going on in your life at the time of reading. I am keen to re-read this book again and again at different points in my life as I feel it has the ability to be appreciated from an alternative vantage point every time, in the seeing of different details and the interpretation of new concepts.
Barbara Newhall Follett walked out of her house and left her husband at the age of 25 with nothing but $30 in her pocket and was never seen again. Her disappearance remains an unsolved mystery to this day, 80 years later. A story that strangely echoes that of Eepersips, written by her 12 year old self.
If you are still reading now you deserve a huge congratulations for surviving what turned out to be more of a critical essay!! Please engage in the discussion through replying to this post, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the book and what you thought of mine and if you want to read more of my reviews…don’t forget to follow me!
Meg Readz xx