I had the pleasure of meeting Johnathan Corcoran this past summer when he was visiting faculty at my alma mater, West Virginia Wesleyan College, and I was participating in their speaker series. He was such an interesting and engaging person that I had to order his book as soon as I got home, though it's taken a while to work its way up my TBR pile. Once I started it I was so enthralled that I blew off everything else I was supposed to do until it was finished. It's taut, sharp, and exactly what my teachers meant when they said, "make every word count...every sentence must drive the story forward."
Finalist for the Lambda Literary Awards and long-listed for The Story Prize! A once-booming West Virginia rail town no longer has a working train. The residents left behind in this tiny hamlet look to the mountains that surround them on all sides: The outside world encroaches, and the buildings of the gilded past seem to crumble more every day.
These are the stories of outsiders—the down and out. What happens to the young boy whose burgeoning sexuality pushes him to the edge of the forest to explore what might be love with another boy? What happens when one lost soul finally makes it to New York City, yet the reminders of his past life are omnipresent? What happens when an old woman struggles to find a purpose and reinvent herself after decades of living in the shadow of her platonic life partner? What happens to those who dare to live their lives outside of the strict confines of the town’s traditional and regimented ways?
The characters in The Rope Swing—gay and straight alike—yearn for that which seems so close but impossibly far, the world over the jagged peaks of the mountains.
The Rope Swing is an intimate look at a small town through various linked characters. I disagree with Goodreads’ description as a story of outsiders—it is very much also a story of insiders, of those protected by—or accepted to at least a certain degree by—a small town, just because they belong to it. I’d say perhaps it is more about aloneness. And yes, the train is leaving, but there is also a strong love of place—pride in the mountains, in the isolation.
We told our children that we were God’s chosen people—Appalachian Israelites—even if we didn’t go to church very often We thought we were given a secret, living out here. We thought that the code to unlocking that secret was fossilized in a piece of falling rock. Living here was bother a gift and a test, and one day the secret to life would fall from a mountain face and land in front of our shoes. One of us would rise up again, like Christ himself, and save the world from itself. (5)
In The Rope Swing we get to know the town itself almost as a living entity, an unnamed character. I was uncertain how I felt about the name of the book until the very end, and without spoilers, it is perfect. This is a book that once I got to the ending I understood every other story on a deeper level. I had to flip back, re-read certain passages. The only other book that gave me that experience of backward understanding was Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson. There is something incredibly satisfying about a book that turns so sharply, and in the case of The Rope Swing, so subtlety. It’s truly masterful.
It’s a searing collection, though I reject story collection as a description. It’s more complete than that, more fused. I think of it as a novel in pieces, like the difference between a mosaic, where every piece leads to a unified whole, and a collage, where every piece is a separate thing, layered upon the next. However, the short story form allows Corcoran to alter the point of view to great effect. This book is as much about what is left out as what is included, and the use of first-person and first-person-plural allows both an anonymity and a point of entry for the reader. When I finished the book, I felt as if the characters nodded and walked off into the mist--each person was rendered so fully. The Rope Swing is making me re-think the form of my own work in progress, contemplate if linked stories could provide a more three-dimensional view than a linear story.
Copyright © 2023 Lara Lillibridge
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