Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Digging for gold at the library: Magic Portholes!

(by Gina Bardi, Reference Librarian)

I dropped my pencil in the stacks the other day.  As I bent down to pick it up, I noticed a title that struck my fancy--Magic Portholes.  Magic Portholes!  I’ve been here three and a half years so it’s inexcusable that a book with the title Magic Portholes would escape my attention until now.  All I can say is that it was on a bottom shelf and studies have shown that people are less likely to look on lower or higher shelves than middle ones.  No excuses, though.  Let’s just jump right in, shall we?

This brightly green colored book with a delightful font is by Helen Thomas Follett, a travel writer and essayist.  The first thing that caught my eye as I flipped through it was the wonderful drawings by Armstrong Sperry.  Some of you die hard book lovers might know him from his Newberry Award winning book, Call it Courage, about a Polynesian youth overcoming his fear of the sea.  In Magic Portholes, his woodcut style illustrations are enchanting.  Here are two fine examples of his work:

I was hooked. I turned to read the opening sentence, as any book lover will tell you the measure of most books can be gathered from the opening sentences.  “Magic Portholes” begins thusly:
“Let’s go to sea for a year!”
“Where?  For a what? Come on, Barbara, dry the dishes for me will you?”
“Come on mother, let’s run away to sea”
That’s what I call an intriguing start.  A daughter pleading with her mother to run away to sea with her?  How I wish I would have found this for Mother’s Day! It’s rare to find a sea adventure story that is about women, much less between a mother and daughter. I immediately wanted to know more about this book, so I started researching.  Within a few minutes I had learned an intriguing and terribly sad story, not about this book but about the lives of the women who lived it.

So first, let’s discuss this book on its own merits before getting into the strange facts which surround it. Magic Portholes  is  a true story, or at least based on true events.  The author and her daughter Barbara (much more on her later) did in fact run away to sea. The story starts out in New England with daughter Barbara urging a sea journey. She lays out persuasive arguments:
I want to live at sea much longer than ten days [ed. note: see below]. Oh I’ll take along books and study. Think of reading Virgil up in the crosstrees, or straddling the main book or lying in the fold of a furled spanker in some quiet harbor (p. 2).
 “Let me tell you,” Barbara began, “Just what it’ll be like, that first day at sea. We’ll be towed out, and the tug captain and the master of our sailing ship will call across to each other, in their hoarse voices. We’ll be standing on the poop and you’ll get your first thrill when the little donkey engines start up. But wait until you hear the sounds of the rippling sails in the masts! You’ll hear the skipper call out, ‘Mains’l out first, then fores’l, forestays’l, and jibs; spanker and tops’ls. Lively, boys! We’ll be safely outside and prancing down the harbor under sail, and then we’ll cast the towrope, and the little tug will wheel about and chug back to the city. But we’ll be free! The great white sails will lift and lift and fill and fill, and we’ll be off. Off…” (p. 6).
The two wind up in the West Indies and then onto Tahiti, Fiji, Samoa and points in between.   Magic Portholes is their discovery of those beautiful islands and the adventures they have. It’s not so much of a travelogue as a lively conversation. The two never seem to get down and always face any setbacks with bemusement.  They mostly travel by schooner, their preferred method, with occasional tramp steamers thrown in. Along the way they try to live for six shillings a day or less. They pick up work here and there writing dispatches or doing odd jobs.  Mostly, people seem to be drawn to them and their vivacious way of living.  I should note that there is some inappropriate language in the book that is unfortunately a product of the times the book was published in (1932). It seems out of place with the easy going good cheer of the novel and is a blight on an otherwise charming work.

The real life of Helen and Barbara Follett was short of good cheer.  Wilson Follett, Helen’s husband, left the family for another woman when Barbara was 13.  The blow was shocking both emotionally and financially. Helen and Barbara were left reeling. It most likely was her adventuress daughter’s idea to run away to sea, ostensibly to get material to write books because Barbara, it should be noted, was already an accomplished author. At 11 she had published a book, The House Without Windows which was extremely well received and made something of a celebrity out of its young author.  Lee Wilson Dodd reviewed it in The Saturday Review of Literature said of it, “This is very beautiful writing. But there are moments when, for one reader, this book grows almost unbearably beautiful. It becomes an ache in the throat. Weary middle-age and the clear delicacy of a dawn-Utopia, beckoning…the contrast sharpens to pain.”   Barbara went on to publish one more book, The Voyage of the Norman D. which was about the time she spent, as a 13 year old on a schooner, the Norman D. Yes, you read that right. At 13 she had decided to go to sea by herself and got her parents to book her passage on a schooner where she basically a passenger with chores (which explains the line in the passage above where she wants to live at sea more than 10 days).  Shortly after she returned, her father deserted the family.  Losing both a father and supporter, Barbara was left reeling.  It was then she and her mother decided to go to sea and gathered the material which would become Magic Portholes. Upon returning, Helen and Barbara struggled back in the states, finding it very difficult to earn a living. Barbara moved to LA, hated it, and moved back to New York.  She didn’t publish anything else, although according to an article in Lapham’s Quarterly by Paul Collins, she completed two manuscripts, one called Lost Island and another Travels Without a Donkey but neither was published.  She married very young, still a teenager.  Her marriage was unhappy and she was plagued with worry that her husband was not faithful. In 1939, at age 25, she walked out of her apartment after a fight with her husband. She was never seen again.  The Collins story is wonderful and if you are intrigued by the little I have covered here, I suggest it for further reading.

But back to Magic Portholes, so as not to end in sadness but rather excite you to take your own adventure (Perhaps with your mom? Call her!) this is another excerpt from the book:
That night, our first at sea, we lay awake in our bunks a long time, listening to the ocean outside our portholes. Fragments of talk floated around the little cabin, up from one bunk and down from another. 
‘Hear that voice outside? That’s the voice that’s been haunting me for a year.  Feel that wind? No breeze on land so fresh as that. Look through the porthole! See the dome sand callous ocean rising falling- stars riding the waves… I’m at sea again.  Am I? It smells like it; it looks like it; it sounds like it. To-morrow we’ll be at sea- the next day -the next- and we’ll sleep to-night with the sound of the ocean in our ears, of wind in the sails- no, you know what I mean- the sound of engines- throbbing sound, not like sails, though.  But it doesn’t matter- not much… Good night’ (p. 31).

So, all of you library browsers out there take note- drop a pencil once and awhile and see what you find. If you’d like to see this book or anything else in our research center, just drop me a line.

Dodd. lee Wilson. “In Arcady.” Saturday Review of Literature (1927). Web. 28 May 2014.
Collins, Paul. “Vanishing Act.” Lapham’s Quarterly. 18 Dec. 2010. Web. 28 May 2014.
Follett, Helen. Magic Portholes. New York: The Junior Literary Guild, 1932. Book.

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