Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Rope Walk



The Rope Walk
By Carrie Brown
Anchor Books, $13.95 paper
ISBN 978-0-307-27809-8


Clearly, there is a magical geography to childhood, a place to which we can never return. Therein might be the secret to coming-of-age, or bildungsroman novels; they offer a chance for the reader to see the world once again through the eyes of the innocent, and to mourn the moment when the child is left behind for the grown-up life we all must eventually embrace.

Carrie Brown’s recent novel, The Rope Walk, brings us into the life of the MacCauley family, focusing on the childhood of Alice MacCauley, surrounded by her five brothers and widowed father. The novel begins on Alice’s tenth birthday, late in May. Her brothers are home, but soon will be leaving for various colleges and institutions. Her father, Archie, is a teacher at a local college, and is raising the family without his wife, who died tragically in a fall from a horse. Alice does not remember her well, and she must grow up in a household full of men. Her only feminine role models are Helen O’Brien, a longtime family friend, and Elizabeth, the MacCauley’s Vietnamese housekeeper.

Alice is already feeling the cold death of her childhood creeping in. Her games and child fantasies have recently taken a darker turn, and she is beginning to realize that suffering is real in the world. Several events are alluded to: September 11th, the tsunami in Thailand, the growing concern over the outbreak of bird flu. She feels helpless and small in the face of the world’s miseries, and although she would like to remain in the innocent world she has known, the gradual realization of the unfairness of life unsettles her.

At her birthday party, she meets Helen’s mixed race grandson from New York, Theo Swann. He is about Alice’s age with an astounding curiosity about the world and a knack for mechanics and engineering. In fact, he carries a large toolbox with him everywhere he goes. He is also an aficionado of television documentaries and science programs. Alice is a reader, but Theo borders on the creative genius, so they become fast friends.

Also at the party is Kenneth Fitzgerald, a well-known artist who grew up in the small Vermont town. He is the anonymous donor who built the town library, and he has designed several mobiles, one of which hangs in the Guggenheim. The children quickly realize that Kenneth is not well; he has AIDS, and has probably come home to die. Theo and Alice begin reading to him everyday, and therefore see firsthand the suffering he endures.

The plot moves slowly, and we are treated to a series of vignettes that involve life-lessons for the children. Different characters act as teachers for the youngsters as they develop an awareness of the world, and also the pain and suffering that runs like a river through life. Alice misses her mother. Theo worries about the decaying state of his parents’ marriage and his mother’s depression. Together, they are concerned about Kenneth’s health. After Helen suffers a stroke and falls into a coma, Theo comes to live with the MacCauleys and Alice is deprived of one of her surrogate mothers.

Brown describes nature with a rapturous zeal. A waterfall becomes a booming siren song, full of bombast and danger: “When you drew close to the falls, the air had a deep, concussive ringing, and you felt compelled to try to creep closer to the tumult of water, inching along on the tumbled wreckage of rocks.” While climbing around the fall with her brother, Wally, Alice discovers a deer, frozen to death in the icy water. “The poor creature, slipping on the rocks, had fallen in and been swept downstream until it was trapped by the forked branch, held there in the water while it froze to death. The deer’s body had been encased in a cataract of ice like a gruesome sculpture, tiny hooves protruding helplessly through the frozen waterfall.”

When Brown connects the description to Alice’s growing revelations about herself, the novel becomes ethereal. Of the deer, Alice thinks of the “proximity of such suffering alongside her own comfort. It was guilt that she felt, and pity, but also something more complicated; she would turn then and look for a long time at the photograph of her mother holding the infant Alice, and when sleep slowly took her away in its black-sleeved arms, she went as an orphan, a wide-eyed survivor, all alone on the deck of a boat sailing into the darkness.” Her prose is beautiful and crystalline, accumulating in vast sculptures of words that ring like poetry.

She alludes liberally to Shakespeare—Archie teaches the plays—and there are references to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest, and Hamlet. But the journals of Lewis and Clark form the true metaphor in the story. The children read from this book to Kenneth, and the two explorers of America parallel the children’s exploration of life.

Brown excels at characterization. The MacCauley sons are clearly drawn: James, the good looking one; Wally the musician and surrogate parent for Alice; Tad and Henry, the madcap twins; and Eli, the sensitive gardener with the deep connection to nature. All are given distinct personalities and voices. Theo and Alice are also separate and distinct entities. Their dialogue may be a bit sharper than most ten year-olds are capable of, but their words drip with nuance and revelation about their emotional states. They are soul mates, and by the midpoint in the book, they can almost read each other’s mind. Theirs is a pure, childhood friendship, and the novel hints at the end that they may have a future together in adulthood.

There are some weaknesses to be found in The Rope Walk. The story meanders a bit, and takes three chapters to really take off. Mostly this has to do with Brown taking time to really describe and set the scene.

I am also puzzled by Helen O’Brien’s story. Aside from placing Theo with the MacCauleys, I was unsure where the stroke story was going. Brown takes some time to describe the O’Briens, but almost immediately has Helen become incapacitated. She does not return until the end of the book. She is permanently damaged by the stroke and is left speechless, although she does convey a very important message from Theo to Alice.

In addition, the racial aspect of Theo’s mixed heritage also seems to get too much play here. Aren’t people more comfortable with mixed race relationships and children these days? Brown writes: “Alice thought about the mysterious black man who was Theo’s father. She hadn’t seen all that many black people in her life.” Brown goes on to say that Alice has seen pictures of black people before, like in the pages of National Geographic Magazine. I found Alice’s lack of experience with blacks to be a stretch.

Kenneth’s AIDS seemed dated as well. AIDS, although still a dangerous and devastating disease, is not the death sentence it used to be. Many HIV positive people live longer due to advancements in medications and therapies. Having Kenneth come home to die might be necessary given the ending, but this plot device strains plausibility.

The stress between father and daughter—Archie and Alice—after the cataclysmic events at the end of the novel also pushes the boundaries of realism. Archie is the enlightened parent, a man more comfortable with books and learning, a sort of lesser Atticus Finch from To Kill A Mockingbird. I do not think he would blame Alice, a ten year-old child, for the rash actions of an adult.

In the end, Alice, Theo, and Kenneth become entwined in a tragic occurrence. Alice realizes the end of innocence, Theo must return to New York and face his fears, and Kenneth struggles in the face of his disease to control his destiny. It is a powerful novel, and Carrie Brown reveals herself to be a writer in command of her craft.

All in all, there is a lot to like in The Rope Walk: the magic of a summer night, the voices and dreams of children, and the luminosity of the burning days of youth. Like the rope walk itself, Carrie Brown’s prose brings us along in the story. Its gorgeous richness keeps us reading, even when the story drags a bit. Watching Alice explore the frontiers of her own life as she reads about Lewis and Clark exploring the American frontier, one is struck by the distance we must travel to reach our destination, the perils we encounter along the way, and the beauty and grace of a young girl who leaps toward adulthood during one magical year.