By Elizabeth Swados
A shared room in a half-way house, a day job scooping poop and walking dogs, and parole from a life sentence for murder might have felt like a blessing to some.
But life has taught Carleen Kepper (nee Ester Rosenthal) to face good luck with suspicion.
But distrustful or not, Carleen (as she was renamed to avoid attention from neo-Nazis and anti-semites when she went into prison) is getting a second chance at life.
Nobody, least of all Carleen, believes it will be easy.
A prodigy artist as a child, Ester Rosenthal was a millionaire by the time she was 10. With aloof and undemonstrative parents and an internationally famous talent, she didn’t fit in as a child.
She grew up with a tendency to steal small things. By the time she enrolled in a small New Hampshire college, she was a kleptomaniac with a taste for drugs, an ex-con bad boy, fast motorcycles and sports cars, and dangerous thrills. What Esther started as a small “art terrorist” group doing nonsensical thefts as “performance art,” under the influence of her boyfriend, escalated into the criminal.
She lands in jail with a life sentence when an attempted heist of a jewelry truck leads to a traffic accident and the deaths of three people and two police officers. A third police officer lives but is permanent paralyzed. Ester didn’t do any of the killing but was viewed as the force behind the events.
Author Elizabeth Swados tells Ester/Carleen’s story in chapters that go backwards and forwards in time moving from the violence she barely survives in prison to the dogs and clients she works with on parole to her attempts to connect with the daughter she gave birth to in prison. The daughter is bright, entitled and unsympathetic when she meets Carleen. It’s a relationship — like everything else in Carleen’s life — that has to be earned with hard work.
This is a wonderfully warm and rewarding story. It has many complex characters like Sister Jean, the nun who is part counselor, part goad; Sam, the white activist once married to a Black Panther, who launches one progressive program after another and rages at Carleen’s parole; Warden Jen Lee, a sturdy, five-foot woman, making improvements for the prisoners she supervises even as rapes by guards, fights between prisoners and drug sales continue; Carleen’s daughter who has named herself Batya Shulamit and her bar mitzvah preparation teacher Elisheva, who has the courage to break the rules, help Carleen connect with her daughter and ultimately becomes Carleen’s business partner.
This book is filled with juxtapositions of privilege and misfortune; judgment and forgiveness; routine versus excitement; and the brevity and longevity of time as it’s experienced in prison and life.
About the Author: Elizabeth Swados (1951 – 2016)
WALKING THE DOG was published after Elizabeth Swados’ 2016 death from complications after surgery for esophageal cancer.
The daughter of a successful attorney and an actress and poet who struggled with depression, Swados composed and performed music and was a theater direction in addition to being an author. She won an Obie Award for her direction of “Runaways” in 1978 and was nominated for several Tony Awards and Drama Desk Awards. She receive a Guggenheim Fellowship, A Ford Fellowship, an International PEN Citation, among other honors.
She published three novels, three nonfiction books and nine children’s books. She described her work in music as “experimental musical theater,” adding “Broadway is a museum that’s not moving forward, and musical theater should reflect what and how we are now — our pop culture, our political situation.”