The Castle Cross The Magnet Carter is a mouthful of a title, but it fits because this is a delicious mouthful of a novel. Corthron’s basic elements are a pair of twins, one black, one white, one from Maryland, one from Alabama. We start at their childhood, but it isn’t long before we’re catapulted across state and family lines into a tangle of adventures and relationships. The novel moves sometimes smoothly, sometimes by jerks and starts between past and present. It turns out that these families are inextricably intertwined through sets of circumstances which I won’t go into here, partly because it would take a ton of explaining and partly because it would be a gigantic spoiler for a reader. It’s enough, I think, to say that from their childhood interactions through their old age, we grow to appreciate and participate not only in the characters’ personal and family lives but into the history that surrounds them as they travel through their lives.
We start out–well not really start out because we keep going back and forth–in World War II. Then, for those of us who know and remember, comes the Korean thing. Then on into the civil rights movement. Each period produces its own set of loves, resentments, fondnesses, and grudges. At times the injustices seemed, however, disturbing, to be part and parcel of much history and many tales I’d read before. I was somewhat upset, but not shocked–KKK stuff, children jailed and tried as adults, betrayals by people who were supposed to be friends, etc. All of these Corthron handles with admirable skill. I was particularly impressed with the intricate interactions surrounding the death of one of the mothers. There were, however, a couple of scenes made me want to scream at the injustices. One, not because it was more horrendous than some that had gone before, but because it was so immediate. Black folks waiting for hours in the heat, forbidden water and food, all not for a chance to vote, but for a chance to register to vote. I guess thing may have improved a smidgen in that now the struggle is whether to actually fill out a ballot.
The second was a different animal. I’ve read plenty of lynching narratives, true and untrue, and the well written ones always turn your stomach. My best recent example is Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad. It was recently made into a tv special, and parts of it made me turn my head from the screen. Unfortunately, I couldn’t do that maneuver with the Magnet Carta narrative without missing the whole thing. It is the most brutal and ugly piece of action I think I’ve ever read, lynching or not. wanted to scream at the injustices. Magnet Carter is a long book. So long that publishers turned it down repeatedly till it was finally accepted. Reputedly, they wanted her to cut more, but she protested that she’d already cut 400 pages, so what did they want? Corthron has earned some celebrity as a playwright, so maybe she went a little overboard at being turned loose in a medium that doesn’t normally require the whole product to be finished in a couple of hours. However, those of us who stick with it are richly rewarded with a book that is not only a tale well and truly told, but a chronicle of key parts of American history. It deserves a place in the canon of our literature.