The Rope Walk follows the path of ten-year-old Alice McCauley, a petite and perceptive redhead who lives in the small town of Grange, settled deep within the rocky
southern hills of Vermont. After her mother's sudden accidental death, Alice has lived a sheltered life, mainly cared for by her five jocular older brothers and her father, a Shakespearean scholar and dean at the nearby college.
Alice awakens one morning, excited that it's her tenth birthday, ready for her party and grateful to the beautiful world around her that is awash with possibilities,
a bucolic place that she could never imagine leaving.
As she swings her imaginary camera back and forth, photographing the field, the orchard, the lawn, even the flower borders near the house, all rolling beneath her twinkling and flashing in the spring sun, these images bring the girl a measure of comfort unlike anything else she has experienced before in her life.
It is on this day, the 29th of May and the day of the annual Memorial Day parade, that two special guests arrive at the McCauley house. The first is young Theo, on holiday from New York City to visit his grandparents. But the far more mysterious guest to arrive that day is Kenneth Mackenzie, a middle-aged artist who is dying of AIDS.
Alice doesn't really understand the circumstances of Kenneth's condition, yet she's inexplicably drawn to this strange, sickly man who attracts Alice with his knowing expression. Meanwhile, Theo is drawn to Alice, finding a measure of comfort in her playful amicability.
Theo gradually becomes Alice's "brave little friend." It seems as though he has fallen into the McCauley's lives as if out of the ether, with no cords binding him to anyplace else and no end in sight to his stay with them. Theo's grandparents are strangely distant, and he never speaks about his parents. Alice knows very few details about his life in New York City
- his mother with her mysterious sad condition or his black father, and his parents' "falling–apart marriage."
Alice is strangely thrilled at Theo's rambunctious sense of adventure; "he had so many ideas, things she hadn't even thought of doing." But most thrilling is when Alice and Theo begin to spend lazy afternoons at Kenneth's house, reading to him from books about Meriwether Lewis and his expedition with William Clark across the American territories.
Frail and pale-skinned, "looking as if he were made of birch bark," Kenneth is not like any of the other adults and Theo and Alice are attracted to the ailing man's sense of isolation and loneliness.
Feeling within themselves the loss that he feels, they decide passionately to do something for him, something heroic on the order of Lewis and Clark's magnificent trek westward. The idea of the ropewalk winding through the woods and down to the river is perhaps a way for Kenneth to finally go
on a longed-for walk in the woods by himself.
As Theo and Alice steadily construct the ropewalk, Carrie Brown pits Alice's innocence against the unsettling post-9/11 traumas of the wider world.
That she does so with such elegance and style is a testament to the author's understanding of the human condition, especially for that of a child, for Alice's life is filled with the words and experiences beyond her imagining.
Throughought the course of the story, Alice learns that people are not what she had imagined them to be – Archie, her father, and her jocular brothers
seem to have abandoned her to the remote wilderness of the Vermont countryside.
In the end, it's her friendship with Theo and the dying Kenneth that causes the world she's loved so
keenly from her bedroom windowsill to seem distant and insubstantial.
Quietly introspective and gorgeously written, The Rope Walk works beautifully on a number of levels as seen through a ten-year-old girl's eyes, and the novel leaves a lasting impression upon the reader of a world richer and more precarious than we, as adults, can possibly imagine.