In The Rope Walk, Carrie Brown crafts a luminous story of a young girl's coming of age during a crucial summer in New England. On her tenth birthday Alice meets two visitors to her quiet town: Theo, the African American grandson of her father's best friend, and Kenneth, an artist who has come home to convalesce. Theo forms an instant bond with Alice that will indelibly change them both. The pair in turn befriend Kenneth, and decide to build a “rope walk” through the woods for him, allowing to make his way through the outdoor world he has always loved. But their good intentions lead to surprising consequences, and Alice soon learns how different the world of children and adults really are.
Like Brown's first novel, Rose's Garden, her sixth sets themes of tolerance and understanding in a picture-postcard setting. In a Vermont town where a description of the local library racks up a dozen adjectives (including "tall," "bracing," "rippling," "silvery" and "delicious"), children collect butterflies and recite "Hiawatha." When Kenneth Fitzgerald, the artist who sponsored the library's transformation from dreary to spectacular, returns to his childhood home dying of AIDS, he asks 10-year-old Alice MacCauley and her neighbors' manic visiting mixed-race grandson, Thelonious Swann "a tawny little lion cub" to come by and read to him in the afternoons. Alice's mother died young; her father teaches Shakespeare and recites it around the house (while her older brothers blow smoke rings), so Alice is primed for literature. All three are drawn into Lewis and Clark's journals as Alice reads them aloud; the explorers' historic journey stands in for Fitzgerald's journey toward death and for Alice and Theo's trip into nascent first love and adulthood. The rope Alice walks isn't very high off the ground, but Brown keeps it taut and stretched across some engaging vistas.