Saturday, October 1, 2016

Don't judge a book by its cover: The Castle Cross The Magnet Carter

So I've just finished up The Castle Cross The Magnet Carter, a book that deserves some sort of award for worst title ever and a close runner-up in the competition for bad cover design. (I give that title to Strange and Dangerous Dreams, however, which is such a fabulous book but it never got its chance, I feel, because it has such a godawful cover.) Take a moment, do, to look past the covers on both these books and give their contents a chance. They're worth it.

Sure The Castle Cross The Magnet Carter is 800 pages long but four of those pages are blank and everything after page 789 is backmatter that you can skip. Hell, page 789 has only about 150 words on it. You can probably knock it out in a long weekend.

 Okay, maybe not. But you'll try because it's a pretty compulsive, "oh, I'll just read another two pages" sort of book. It can be pretty intense: there are three 2 -3 page sections where I had to read with my eyes averted, picking up the general nature of the action without really reading every word as it was just too awful. But what is it about, you might wonder. That's not so easy to say.

 The story is structured around two families each of which contains two brothers (one of them also has a sister but she's pretty marginal, except when the plot needs her) who live in different parts of the south: Maryland for the black family and Alabama for the white. It jumps around in time but it starts when the boys are young, during the depression and ends in 2010. Most of the action is right around 1960, with the attempts at desegregation and voter registration so really not a lot of fun for anyone. (Those people who do have a lot of fun in this book are, for the most part, really very nasty people. Did you miss the note about the three 2 - 3 page sections I had to skip?)

But it's not all misery and you could even say it ends on a hopeful note. There are some interesting results from the way the book is written and structured which may have been accidental--and signs of a not-that-capable writer--or deliberate--and indicative of a really nuanced writer. More than once I forgot which family I was reading about and I'd have to remind myself: "BJ and Randall are the poor white kids whose father works in the mine" or "Eliot and Dwight are the Maryland sons of the black Pullman porter." So maybe Kia Corthron is trying to make a point about how, at some level, they're all people with a lot of the same problems and same relationships, and that among the many tragedies is their inability to recognize their shared humanity. That seems to be the note on which she ends and it could be argued that that is what each brother recognizes in his better moments. But the story she's telling is very much about how different it is for the different races: how much hatred and misunderstanding and willingness to see the other race as completely "other" leads to horrific, awful, and tragic actions, with most of the suffering being inflicted--deliberately--by the whites. It was troubling, I tell you, the number of times that I became confused about whether I was remembering something I'd read in my book or heard on the news.

I don't really seem to be selling this, do I? The thing is, it's a good read. The characters--especially in the first few hundred pages--are engaging and interesting. The kids haven't lost a certain innocence. You feel hopeful for them because they're hopeful. That sets up the later tragedies, of course, but it's also something you can enjoy. And the bulk of the book isn't relentless misery: some of it is hopeful and some of it is educational and, well, some of it is just plain gut-wrenching. In the end, however, you want the world to be a better place. And maybe this book is a step on the road to understanding which I suspect is a essential to getting to that better place.

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