The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter Reviewed by Wally Wood of
Wally Wood

Reviewer Wally Wood: Wally is an editor and writer, has published three novels, Getting Oriented:A Novel about Japan, The Girl in the Photo an  Death in a Family Business. He obtained his MA in creative writing in 2002 from the City University of New York and has worked with a number of authors as a ghostwriter and collaborator.

With an extensive background in a variety of business subjects, his credits include twenty-one nonfiction books. He spent twenty-five years as a trade magazine reporter and editor and has been a volunteer writing and business teacher in state and federal prisons for more than twenty years. He has finished his fourth novel and has translated a collection of Japanese short stories into English.

By Wally Wood
Published on May 19, 2018

Author: Kia Corthron
Publisher: Seven Stories Press
ISBN: 978-160980-657-6

Author: Kia Corthron
Publisher: Seven Stories Press
ISBN: 978-160980-657-6

Let's start with two remarkable facts about Kia Corthron's The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter that have nothing to do with the characters or plot (or the book's quality): 

(1) It is a first novel; 

(2) It is 789 pages. 

What publisher in 2015 would take a chance on such a manuscript? Fortunately for readers (and Kia Corthron) Seven Stories Press, 25-year-old independent New York publishing company, did.

It was not a total crap shoot. Corthron has an undergraduate degree in communications and film, spent a year in a playwriting workshop after graduation, then applied to Columbia University's MFA program. As a playwright she's won a number of honors for her stage work including the Windham-Campbell Literature Prize (Drama), at $150,000 one of the largest prizes of its kind in the world. And once The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter was published, it won the 2016 Center for Fiction First Novel. The editor clearly saw value.

The novel traces the lives of brothers Randall and B.J., who are white, born in fictional small-town Prayer Ridge, Alabama, and who are 13 and 18 years old when the book opens in 1941. And the lives of brothers Elliot and Dwight, who are black, born in fictional small-town Humble, Maryland, and and who are 6 and 12 years old in 1941. The novel concludes in 2010. 

Randall is exceptionally bright; B.J. is profoundly deaf, illiterate, and uncommunicative. Randall, impressed as a school child by the life of Helen Keller, teaches B.J. a sign language they can use with each other. Eventually B.J. learns American Sign Language and can communicate with others. Randall, for all his intelligence and promise, is trapped and emotionally/intellectually crippled by Jim Crow Alabama and during the book  Corthron dramatizes the cataclysmic effect on Southern whites and blacks by the Civil Rights movement.

Elliot and Dwight grow up in a stable working class family—their father is a Pullman porter—and live in racially mixed neighborhood. Elliot eventually becomes a lawyer, working out of an Indianapolis law firm and, at one point, defending two young black boys caught playing a kissing game with a white child on an elementary school Georgia playground. 

Corthron is particularly strong showing the four boys, Randall, B.J., Elliot, and Dwight, as children at play. This is what it must have been like growing up in small-town Alabama and small-town Maryland in the 1940s. An accomplishment because Corthron herself, although she grew up in Maryland, was born in 1961.

Given her background as a playwright, she is also particularly skilled a creating dialogue that reveals character, age, class, and situation. Here is beginning of the section in which we are introduced to Elliot. The spelling and punctuation are Corthron's:

I got nine lives!

You ain't got no nine lives, cat got nine lives. Dwight don't even look up. Dwight always drawrin.

I'm a cat! I'm a cat! I'm a cat! Meow. Hahahaha!

Shut up.

Whatchu drawrin?

He don't answer. I go over. He settin on our bed. He settin on our bed drawrin.

He got wings! That man got wings!

It's Icarus, Dwight say. Dwight good at drawrin! Look! Fingernails!

Corthron found a way to write dialect that gives the impression of speech without trying to reproduce the sounds exactly (a la Mark Twain). It is so effective and so strong that I had to put the novel aside because I found my black characters talking like hers in the book I was writing. 

As one might expect in a 789-page novel covering sixty years in the lives of four main characters a lot happens. But what happens grows out of the decisions/choices of the characters and the situations/circumstances in which they find themselves. The reader may begin to wonder how these four lives converge—will they? 

They do. First in tragedy and horror, and finally in perhaps the best resolution possible under the circumstances. The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter is ultimately plausible and satisfying. It engaged me for all its bulk in the characters' lives and the places I know little about. I feel better for knowing for knowing them. I only hope Corthron writes another novel.