When I stumbled on the story of child prodigy writer Barbara Follett in 2011, I knew I had to write a novel about her—an account that would make sense of her enigmatic life. But I didn’t know that would lead to years of research and writing.
Barbara Follett, born in Hanover, New Hampshire, in 1914, had all the makings of fame and success. Her mother gave up a teaching career to school her at home—because both parents agreed no ordinary school could serve her dazzling intellect. Her father, Wilson Follett, author of the classic Modern American Usage, encouraged her nascent writing skills. By age four she knew how to type, and when she was twelve, she published a fantasy/adventure novel, The House Without Windows, to great acclaim. In 1928, she followed up with publication of a charming account of her journey on a square-rigger, The Voyage of the Norman D.
Then tragedy struck the family, and Barbara’s life changed irrevocably. Yes, she had more adventures—journeying halfway around the world with her mother and trekking Europe with her husband to be—sometimes courting danger. But some soul-squelching wound haunted her, and never again did she find publishing success. Then, in 1939, at the age of twenty-five, Barbara Follett walked out on her husband. To this day, Barbara’s disappearance remains a mystery.
Months after her disappearance, a police report was filed, but the police uncovered no clues as to her whereabouts. Her mother undertook an investigation of her own, tracking down anybody and everybody who’d had contact with Barbara before her disappearance, but to no avail. Before long, the trail went cold.
I set out to explore Barbara Follett’s life and writings in an attempt to understand what happened that fateful night in 1939. And there was plenty of material to read and evaluate. In 1960 Barbara’s mother, Helen Follett, approached Harold Grier McCurdy, an expert on childhood genius, offering to turn over letters, prose, and poetry by Barbara. McCurdy agreed to study Barbara’s history and books, which led to a five-year collaboration and publication of Barbara: The Unconscious Autobiography of a Child Genius in 1966. It is a fascinating read since it offers a psychological analysis of Barbara’s stories, starting with short stories written when she was quite young, and culminating in her unpublished novel Lost Island. It offers, in McCurdy’s words, “the unfolding of a quite individual drama.” Still, it shies away from asking the hard questions, perhaps out of deference to a mother’s pain over her lost daughter.
That left me to do my own research, and Helen Follett once again aided in this effort. Before her death in 1970, Helen Follett donated all Barbara’s materials to Columbia University. Housed in their library archives are boxes of materials—letters, drawings, newspaper clippings, photographs, and unpublished stories and poems. It took me two visits and many hours to catalog, scan, and review the collection. Digesting it all took many more months, and fashioning Barbara’s story into a novel turned into a seven-year effort. While Barbara was at once fragile and daring, brilliant and awkward, she lived a life full of soaring twists and tragic turns. So any novel about her had to reflect not only drama of her life, but the agony of her sorrows, too.
Do I solve the mystery of Barbara’s disappearance? I cannot claim to know for certain what happened to Barbara in 1939, but, yes, I do offer my own conclusion. Still, it is for the reader to decide, after undertaking this novelistic glimpse into Barbara’s fascinating life story, if it is true to the Barbara the pages of the novel reveal.