Sleuthing Is the Best Therapy: Dorothy Gilman, “The Tightrope Walker”

Sleuthing Is the Best Therapy: Dorothy Gilman, “The Tightrope Walker” October 10, 2018

A woman who’s just in the very first stages of recovery from an awful early life finds a note hidden inside a hurdy-gurdy. The note tells of another woman’s desperate struggle–and about the “faceless ones” who pressured her into signing something which is about to cost her her life. The note cuts off before she can explain her situation, but our heroine, Amelia Jones, feels a strange kinship to her. She knows that by now the woman who wrote the note must be dead. But did the killers get away with it? Are they out there somewhere, triumphant? Amelia’s quest for justice becomes a path of self-discovery, as she takes her first bold steps out into the world and finds that she can survive even more than what her family tried to do to her.

Okay, I loved The Tightrope Walker, almost entirely because I loved Amelia. She’s believably self-conscious, tentative, an observer even of her own emotions, with a lot of suppressed anger and a fierce desire for life. She knows how terribly people can become distorted by pressure from others (I thought of this twitter thread about the way religious homophobia can damage and distort your personality) and she is just starting to learn how those distortions can be healed. The Tightrope Walker is also about books as a refuge: The Maze in the Heart of the Castle, a children’s fantasy which saved Amelia’s life back in those dark home-imprisoned days, plays a crucial role in the story.

The other characters range from the pleasant but unnecessarily quirky to the cartoonish. (“Perhaps a lifetime of dusting surfaces was infectious, and surfaces were all that she acknowledged.”) But Amelia is so easy to cheer on, such a satisfying heroine, that the book’s flaws didn’t matter much to me. This passage is key to the book’s appeal for me:

For instance, there was a time when I used to read all the books about love being published; I felt if I read enough of them I might find the one particular book that would tell me how to be lovable. I was that naive, along with all the other people who kept those books on the best-seller list. I remember scanning one of these in a bookstore a couple of years ago. It was a very hot day, and my feet hurt, and I was feeling very lonely, and this book said that no one should end a day without touching someone, and also without telling another person they loved them. The whole book was about this, and at first I stood there feeling rage boil up inside of me because I mean, how many of us know anybody to touch or to say “I love you” to? But at the time I believed this writer, so I went home and selected a few names from the telephone book, I called them and I said, “I love you.”

There’s so much sincerity, diligence, longing, disappointment there. So much justified anger. (The telephone-book technique, it turns out, does not work.) This is a person you desperately hope will find the guidance she needs.

Amelia is someone who can interject, matter-of-factly, “It is very uphill work being insecure, and profoundly exhausting.” Her own harsh experiences have given her a strong moral imagination, a deep empathy. The Tightrope Walker, while it does solve the mystery of the hurdy-gurdy, is shaped around her discovery of her own strengths, desires, and worth. This upward trajectory feels lived-in, not preachy. It’s a hopeful and hard-won book.

I found it via Rachel Manija Brown’s review.


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