When Lloyd Alexander died last year, everyone talked about how much they loved the Prydain books when they were children. Alexander will always be remembered for that series, but while we, his former readers, grew up and moved on, he continued to write for us—and not just the occasional novel, either, but more than two dozen books over 35 years. I’ve already written about his wonderful autobiographical novel, The Gawgon and the Boy. In the months to come, I’ll continue to read his less familiar books and post brief reviews of each one. To see all posts in this series, click on the “Lloyd Alexander” tag.]
Lidi is a charlatan; people pay her money to fool them. “They understand that it’s just make-believe,” explains the heroine of Lloyd Alexander’s 2002 novel The Rope Trick. “[I]t makes life easier to put up with. It’s consoling.” Lidi, alas, is the only one who’s not consoled by magic. As she roams the roads of Campania performing sleight-of-hand for gullible villagers, the young magician obsessively searches for the secret to the one trick her bitter father swore she wasn’t skilled enough to learn: the famous last illusion of Ferramondo, who was rumored to have thrown a rope into the air, climbed it—and disappeared.
Even in his seventies, Alexander remained a humane and genial writer, but in The Rope Trick his whimsy is eerily muted. Protagonists in his other novels often find their tunnel vision mitigated by wise and pithy companions, but when Lidi is presented with typically Lloyd-Alexandrian statements about the inherent quirkiness of the world, her responses are notable for their lack of humor:
“I have to find a magician named Ferramondo. He’s the only one who knows how to do the trick.
“I’m looking for a town—Montalto,” she added. “He might be there.”
“You shouldn’t have any trouble,” Julian said. “We only have a few dozen Montaltos. It means ‘high mountain.’ So if a town has a bump in the road, it gets called Montalto, and everybody walks up and down admiring it. A crazy country, but we like it that way.”
“My father told me it was in the south.”
“Ah,” Julian said. “That makes things easier. In the south, they only have maybe ten or twelve Montaltos. That cuts it down a little.”
“I’ll find it.”
From Lidi’s obsessive quest to prove her dead father wrong to suggestions of abuse suffered by the child savant she rescues from a roadside tavern, The Rope Trick is darker than readers of Alexander’s early novels might expect. The pseudo-Italian world of Campania is populated by characters who are haunted, scarred, mistreated, or lost. Despite the presence of Alexander’s latest good-hearted charlatan, a circus ringmaster with a troupe of dancing piglets, the novel’s villain firmly establishes the tone of the book: he steals from poor farmers, shoots a man in cold blood, and horsewhips a peasant for fun.
Fortunately, The Rope Trick isn’t dreary; it’s a mature work by a children’s novelist who doesn’t talk down to adults. As Lidi and her companions hear bizarre and conflicting stories about Ferramondo, their quest for the fabled magician becomes a genuinely engaging mystery. Alexander also weaves a love story into The Rope Trick as Lidi falls for Julian, a fugitive who longs to take revenge on a corrupt overseer. In keeping with the book’s determined melancholy, Alexander sets an obstacle between the couple in the form of their one shared and potentially tragic trait: an obsessiveness that threatens their instinct to love.
With its quibbling lovers forced to compromise and mature as they confront injustice, The Rope Trick seems to tell a typical Lloyd Alexander story, until something even more magical happens: a strange and beautiful ending unlike anything in Alexander’s better-known novels. The Rope Trick affirms that a magic trick really can be the greatest consolation, although not in the literal way the heroine has come to expect. Exploring the spiritual dimension of life, a topic largely absent in his earliest novels, Alexander redeems his heroes and refutes their cynicism, but he does so with undiplomatic truths about the secrets to living well, baldly stating that some people “get it” while others never will.
The Rope Trick must have baffled many of the children to whom it was marketed; surely the book left some parents scratching their heads. The novel was touted as children’s fantasy only because the author was an acknowledged master of the genre, but The Rope Trick is the sort of fable for grown-ups that only an old man could write. Alexander’s most clever young readers will treasure this story, but only in retrospect, when they’re old enough, and troubled enough by life, to understand it.