Left in Andover: Tragic end to search for home

By Susan Leader
©2020 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Dad loved reciting his story about hawking apples in Springfield in 1950. After personally picking them each morning, he knocked door to door at Southview Housing District, reasoning that housewives stuck at home with young kids and no transportation would be likely buyers.

Sales, even at his very low prices, proved minimal. After several discouraging days, he resolved to end his capitalistic enterprise with a bang, offering his unsold stock free of charge. Even that did not go over very well: One housewife after another slammed the door in his face with the comment that he must be a communist to be giving stuff away for free.

Henry Little in Vermont before heading off on his South American venture.

Out of this adventure did however come a lifelong friendship with the H family, who, apparently, were not offended by the offer of free apples. Their youngest daughter, now my oldest friend, recently gifted me her parents’ correspondence with Henry Little, to whom Dad introduced.

Henry was Dad’s charismatic sidekick from the 1940s who lived with my family as our hired man in Andover in 1956 and 1957. Henry inspired the H familys, in their search for an ideal home, to seriously consider homesteading in Latin or South America. Indeed, they bankrolled Henry to go on an exploratory trip to Cuba shortly after meeting him. Ultimately the H family stayed put, creating a garden paradise on their own Vermont hillside. My family, as well, declined to indulge Henry’s fantasy of a tropical paradise.

After an ill-fated attempt to help him import indigenous handicrafts to the U.S. from Mexico in 1957, we never saw Henry in person again. An occasional letter from several distant jungles was our only communication. These glorified accounts of his efforts planting banana plantations, building nature preserves and hacking back the bush to build a life for his legally blind new wife Jan and stepdaughter Becca in no way revealed the emotional complexities of his later life.

From Man’s book: Harry, Jan and Becca.

The dust jacket of “The Survival of Jan Little”  by John Man, which was published in 1986, exhorts:

“What do you do if you are nearly blind and deaf, and suddenly left alone at the mercy of nature and the elements in the remotest Amazon jungle?”

Shortly after Henry established his own outpost in southern Mexico, he met Jan on a resupply mission to town. Jan was a lonely, legally blind American divorcee with a 3-year-old daughter chasing her own dreams of homesteading. Unable to resist the cult leader-like powers of Harry (Henry) Little, “a dramatic, eccentric New Englander with shoulder-length blond hair and piercing blue eyes,” she followed him blindly into the utter isolation of the Lacandon Rainforest, submitting herself and her young daughter Becca to his mind control.

A decade later, after a run-in with authorities, the couple abruptly departed for Guyana, ultimately setting down roots in the Brazilian Amazon, a week’s canoe ride on the Rio Negro from native settlements. Completely divorced from all outside reality and the company of other females and children, Jan and the martyred Becca, now a young woman, had only pet monkeys for companionship.

Jan Little through the years, from Man’s book.

In a Survivor-like scenario — more Jim Jones than Swiss Family Robinson — the family persists through one difficulty after another in their isolated jungle camps. Jaguar, near starvation and endless labor hauling water and planting crops are not even Jan’s greatest challenge. Henry’s increasingly bizarre demands for personal loyalty and his Christ complex compound the situation.

The end comes late December 1979:  “Harry and Becca are stricken with a mysterious, fatal illness. Jan, by now suffering the effects of complete tunnel vision and almost completely deaf, must bury their bodies and find some way to survive in a wilderness she cannot see.”

After Henry’s death, Jan finally returned to the United States and developed a more intimate correspondence with Mom. Jan’s brutal honesty concerning her flawed relationship with Henry gave my whole family cause to reflect on how fortunate we had been to escape his toxic influence.

In a 1982 letter to Mom, Jan confided:
“At Becca’s death, Harry told me we would soon follow and that was the only reality for me. I waited with Harry beside me for the release, exhausted and impatient of the conscious moments. Most of the hours were blackness. That night passed, then glimpses of day then night again. I would reach out to know if he was still alive. It seemed I could not finally go until he did.”

Jan Little began corresponding with Mom. Here’s a letter from 1973.

“Before dawn of the next day I was shaken out of that dreamless oblivion. There was no face that I could remember nor words spoken yet the conviction that I had been told ‘Don’t do this!’ was overwhelming. I lay in the hammock with the increasing realization that I was doing wrong, that the relinquishment I had made was a betrayal of Becca, that somehow I had to make a redemptive effort for the too soon termination of her young life.”

“Later I told Harry when he did waken that I was going to try for survival. He told me that he could touch a can of corn if I wanted to try eating. With a machete that lay at his feet he punched a hole, drained the salty liquid and handed it to me. I shook out a grain at a time. Later I was able to make up several drinks of powdered milk as the can and a bucket of water were both within reach. I sat up to drink. The next day I started crawling..”

Map of Amazon homestead.

Henry Little, of whom Dad wrote Jan, “I could have told you something of Henry’s personality without your having to learn the hard way,” landed in Guyana en route to Brazil, in 1973, anticipating Jim Jones by several years. The remoteness of the territory afforded ample opportunity for domination of the two men’s hapless followers, meager though they were in the case of Henry.

The irony that Henry and his stepdaughter Becca succumbed to a variety of malarial fever and starvation was uppermost in Dad’s mind when he wrote, “Henry’s death, so far as I can make out, was due to starvation pure and simple, thus giving the lie to his contention that the natural zone for mankind to live in was the tropics.”

The matter could be argued, indeed Jan took grave issue with Dad’s assessment. Nonetheless, it was the only way Dad was able to make sense of Henry’s self-imposed death. Nothing more could have validated Dad’s mantra, that a person should live within 50 miles of his birth.

Editor’s Note: Jan Little died on Feb. 10, 2018. She was 88.

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Filed Under: Community and Arts LifeLeft in Andover

About the Author: Vermont native and noted potter Susan Leader grew up on Popplewood Farm in Andover. At age 17, she was inspired to take up the potter's wheel by "a charismatic potter" from the Society of Vermont Craftsman. She spent 18 months apprenticing at pottery villages throughout Japan. She returned to Popplewood Farm, where she and her husband, fiddle player John Specker, raised their two daughters.

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