As I’ve previously mentioned on this blog, I love magic. Stage magic, that is. Just love it. I can be entertained for hours with simple card tricks. I also love circuses. Just love them.
So if you are looking for an unbiased review of a Lloyd Alexander novel about a girl working her way through life as a stage magician, hunting down the greatest trick ever performed, The Rope Trick, who just happens to occasionally join a travelling circus with dancing pigs—well, this isn’t that review.
Lidi—aka Princess Lidi, a title as faked as most of her tricks—is a stage magician travelling through an area more or less inspired by 19th century Italy with her friend, companion and quasi-guardian Jericho, a canvasmaster who sometimes juggles flaming torches. She is also a fairly skilled con artist, able to use her skills and a very old math trick in only the second chapter to rescue a young child from an abusive situation. The child notes that most of the time she’s called “stupid idiot,” but “sometimes Daniella.” Lidi, considerably nicer than the child’s original guardians, decides to go with Daniella, and soon adds Daniella as an Added Attraction to the show—at Daniella’s insistence.
Daniella’s trick is to predict the future—correctly. Most of her predictions are just vague enough that her accuracy can be handwaved as either excellent guesses or one of those prophecies that fits pretty much any future (“Changes may appear in your future!” Gee. Thanks.) That is, most of her predictions are just vague enough—but some are more specific. And since Daniella is always, always, correct, something else seems to be going on here.
Not that Lidi believes in that something else. As a stage magician, she is quite aware of how easily people can be tricked—and she does not believe in real magic at all. In any case, she has other things to distract her: the arrival of the good looking Julian, who is not quite as open about his past, or as devoted to Lidi, as she would like; the need to earn money, and her quest to learn the rope trick from the nearly legendary magician Ferramundo.
Ah, the rope trick. According to Lidi’s father, she will never be a true magician until she learns it. It is, everyone assures her, the greatest trick ever performed, even if Ferramundo himself claimed—reportedly—that the trick is so easy, a child can do it.
Not that anyone has actually seen the trick. Heard about it, yes. Discussed it in awe, yes. Agreed that it is a most marvelous, miraculous trick, yes. Seen it?
Not at all.
The lack of specifics doesn’t deter Lidi, who needs to prove to herself, at least, that she can be a true magician, and perhaps finally shake off her father’s hurtful words. And so, she, Jericho, Julian, and Daniella begin to wander through the countryside.
On the way, they encounter a travelling circus, complete with performing pigs and a manager who credits Ferramundo as an inspiration; a mountain town, where several people have various stories to tell of Ferramundo; a run in with Julian’s former companions and friends, now turned bandits; and more than one run in with the evil Scabbia. Oh, and a lovely, delicate little romance, and story after story after story. Most of these stories turn out to be about Ferramundo in one way or another. But not all: those focused on money and social status somehow or other never do end up talking much about Ferramundo—a magician who is not overly concerned with either.
Their journeys do not completely allow them to escape their pasts: Julian, as I noted, meets up with past acquaintances, finding himself dragged back into their world; Daniella continues to be sought after by Scabbia. But this is mostly Lidi’s story, of chasing magic and obsession and learning to let go—and then, finally, learning the rope trick.
More specifically, she flings a rope, which happens to stay suspended in the air as she and her companions hastily go up it, only to find themselves in another world, unable to return.
Ferramundo, who happens to be waiting on the other side, tells Lidi that she has learned the rope trick—which turns out to be less a trick, and more learning how to step between the threads of creation. Which is, according to him, so easy that a child could do it—adding to the book’s many hints that Daniella could do this all along, and that her prophecies are less excellent if often vague guesses and more actual glimpses of the future. A hopeful thought, that after her long quest, Lidi has discovered how to do the trick she was so desperate to find, and proved herself a real magician at last.
Or, she’s dead.
Various hints suggest this: what happens as Lidi performs the rope trick (the house basically collapses around them), what happens immediately afterwards (hurtling through darkness, feeling Scabbia clinging to her—who falls off once they near their direction) and the description of where they are: a dazzling sun, “foliage greener than any in Campania,” and everyone’s hurts and bruises miraculously cured…
It might not be heaven (although inability of Scabbia, the villain, to enter suggests that) but it does definitely seem to be some alternative place. And so, did Lidi really learn the rope trick after she finally decided that she didn’t need it? Or did she just die, which…does not really seem like a trick? And if the rope trick is, essentially, death, is Alexander suggesting that giving up the search for magic and the impossible, or even admitting on whatever level that your father was right and you will never achieve your dreams, means death? Or, worse, that you can only achieve your final success by dying?
In book after book, Alexander had stressed the importance of dreaming, of believing, of striving, of fantasy, of stories, and stressed that the stories were perhaps more important than the results. It was a lesson he had certainly taken to heart: his entire life was focused on stories and dreams and storytelling, not his father’s more modest but practical goals of a middle class career. And now, nearing the end of his career and his life, he apparently found himself contemplating this life, his dreams, his goals—and, well, death.
In this way, The Rope Trick can be seen as the natural follow up to Alexander’s The Gawgon and the Boy, which had also placed storytelling and dreams above practical matters, and also dealt with death, and aging, and dealing with death. The Gawgon and the Boy was about what happens in the real world with this; The Rope Trick is more or less what happens when you enter your own stories.
I don’t mean to suggest that this is only a book about death and magic and dream chasing. The Rope Trick has much more: a study of class structure and its restrictions, but also what happens when people try to tear down those structures and restrictions (hint, it isn’t always very happy), a suggestion again that life is far more than money and success. Also: several short stories skillfully woven into the narrative, adding a fairy tale and dream like attitude to some parts which is almost immediately undercut by the appearance of the bandits and Scabbia. Oh, and a bit of fun with the performing pigs.
It’s a book that dances between reality and dream. Often meandering, and even occasionally slow, sometimes wistful, it is one of Alexander’s most gentle books, even with all of the bandits. And if it is never quite ready to declare that true magic really exists, however many times it may appear, it is still a magical read.
Mari Ness admits she was kinda hoping that the rope trick would turn out to be a real trick. She still never turns down the chance to watch a professional magician. She lives in central Florida.