To an unsuspecting reader, a book about a 10-year-old girl growing up in rural Vermont that doesn't shy away from AIDS, racism or suicide seems like a setup for an after-school special. But to those familiar with the award-winning work of Virginia author Carrie Brown, "The Rope Walk," due for publication in May, is the sixth in a succession of greatly anticipated and wildly different novels.
"It was a self-indulgent pleasure," says Brown of the year she spent immersing herself in the world of Alice MacCauley. Alice is a motherless child with five older brothers who, the summer she turns 10, befriends both a mixed-race boy from New York City and an artist dying of AIDS.
Brown started thinking about writing "The Rope Walk" shortly after 9/11, when her family spent so much time mesmerized by the horror on TV. "We were all captive," she says. "I was aware of how disturbing and troubling it was. And in the years that followed, everything seemed characterized by trauma." Brown began observing her children's reaction to the endless litany of disaster, bombings and hurricanes that followed 9/11. She was surprised by what she found.
"Childhood itself seems to give them a sort of immunity to a worry that is really an adult's worry," she says. "My children don't seem particularly traumatized by how perilous I find the world to be. The world of childhood has its own perils which have nothing to do with what's happening on the nightly news. Their dramas evolve despite what's happening around them." Brown's portrayal of Alice's internal dialogue amidst the chaos of her life is beautifully imagined and in perfect balance with her strange circumstances.
"The Rope Walk" is Brown's first novel written from a child's perspective. "It may be the older I get, the more exotic childhood seems to me," says Brown. "It can be complicated to render a child's experience in adult's language. However, a child's sensory experience is just as rich as an adult's, and in some ways even more so, because everything is brand-new."
Although Brown spent her own childhood in far-flung locations like England and Southeast Asia, the rural landscape of "The Rope Walk" is based on the part of her girlhood spent in rural Vermont. "That physical landscape was very dear to me. I spent a lot of time outside and alone. I have virtually no memory of adults participating in my childhood in the way I have in my own children's lives." S
Carrie Brown reads at the 62nd annual Junior League Book & Author Dinner, May 1 at 7 p.m. at the Greater Richmond Convention Center. Other featured authors are Davar Ardalan, author of "My Name Is Iran: A Memoir"; Bob Deans, author of "The River Where America Began: A Journey Along the James"; Lisa Lutz, author of "The Spellman Files"; James L. Swanson, author of "Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer"; and Patricia Wells, author of "Vegetable Harvest." Tickets are $50-$125. Call 643-4886 or visit www.jlrichmond.org.