Beautiful words, beautiful story
“The Rope Walk,” by Carrie Brown. Pantheon. 2007. 321 pp. $24.
By Deirdre Parker Smith
Not enough people know Carrie Brown and that’s a travesty. She is easily one of the best writers of our time.
She’s a reader’s writer, a writer’s writer. She uses the full potential of every word. Color comes alive in her phrasing, people pop from the pages to sit by you as you read.
“The Rope Walk” is her latest novel, and another fine, fine piece of literature.
Read the opening:
“It was going to be a beautiful day.
“Alice climbed onto her bedroom windowsill and sat down, wrapping her arms around her legs. Early morning mist hovered in mysterious levels over the lawn below. In the tree branches that inclined near her window, the low sun ignited little white signal fires that flashed at Alice from the velvety spaces between the leaves. … downy stripes of sunlight began to unfurl between the long shadows of the trees.”
Instantly, Brown places the reader there with Alice, in a softly framed world where beauty and happiness are possible and sadness seems far away, farther than the shadows under the trees.
Brown typically sets her stories in other eras ó after World War II, at the World’s Fair in 1933 ó but here the setting is contemporary, but only just.
Alice is the only daughter of a college professor in Vermont. The youngest and only girl, Alice does not remember her mother, who died when she was very young, but she adores her five brothers. They range from mischievous twins to thoughtful, musical Wally.
Somehow, Alice lives in a still-innocent world. Her father, Archie, is very protective. She watches almost no television; she doesn’t seem to be interested in or have access to a computer.
She exists in a charmed world, spending most of her summers outdoors, obeying her father when he tells her not to go to certain places along the river. Her May birthday is always a special event that all the neighbors attend.
It is at her 10th birthday that everything changes. The chief agent is Theo, the mixed race grandchild of neighbors Helen and O’Brien. He bursts into her life like a new star ó a noisy, talkative, busy, jumpy star.
Theo knows all about the world. “Don’t you guys have a television set? I have PlayStation … Don’t you have any video games? Do you even know what a video game is?”
Theo knows all about terrorists, all about tsunamis, earthquakes, disasters of all sorts, and he carries a banged-up toolbox full of odds and ends that might come in handy should one of those disasters find him.
One of the guests at Alice’s party is Kenneth Fitzgerald, an accomplished artist who has come to live with his sister, the formidable Miss Fitzgerald, a grimacing piano teacher deemed unsuitable to teach Alice’s talented family.
Kenneth is dying of AIDS, and he requires Alice and Theo to come and read to him in the afternoons. With one eye taped open and an air of illness about him, he both draws and repels Alice.
“…she did not understand everything she had seen this morning ó and a plea; she did not want to know as much as he seemed her to want to know of his life, the sad, adult errors of his life, everything that had gone wrong, or been neglected, or pushed aside.”
Brown writes Alice as a wise, kind, contemplative child; Theo as a buzzing bee, curious, scared, thoughtful, creative. The two make a stunning pair. Alice describes him as a “tawny little lion cub.”
For his part, Theo says he is black.
” ‘You don’t look black,’ Alice said.
” ‘Well I am. If you have even one little drop of black blood in you you’re black.’
“Alice thought about this for a minute. ‘Why don’t people like people who are black?’
“Theo shrugged. ‘They just don’t.’ ”
And so Brown creates this innocent, but opposite pair. Alice unspoiled, unmarked by fear or prejudice. Theo, knowing he’s different, knowing about the world. Yet they are both babes, gentle promises for the future.
Some critics have said Alice’s thoughts are too advanced for a 10-year-old, her world is too idyllic. But it is precisely these circumstances that make “The Rope Walk” the kind of book readers will hate to leave.
Trials come for our heroes. Trials that they, remarkably, pass with flying colors, while the adults around them flounder and fall into a pit of blame.
A remarkable thing Theo and Alice create that summer leads to a horrible tragedy, and to unhappy and really, unnecessary consequences.
But throughout the book, it is the experience of seeing things through a child’s eyes, of living without fear but with knowledge that should fill the reader with wonder. Brown’s enticing prose carries us to places in our own hearts and souls we may have forgotten or put away. She shows the beauty of love, companionship, understanding.
Carrie Brown is a writer of great feeling, one who uses every word with finesse. Read her.
Contact Deirdre Parker Smith at 704-797-4252 or email@example.com.