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The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter

Winner of the
2016 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize
New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice
New York Times Book Review Paperback Row

Powell's Books Best Fiction of 2017 List

On the eve of America’s entry into World War II, in a tiny Alabama town, two brothers come of age in a world of model trains, church, and the local chapter of the Klan: Randall, the son of a sawmill worker, a brilliant eighth-grader and lonely outcast, begins teaching his eighteen-year-old deaf and uneducated brother B.J. sign language. Simultaneously in small-town Maryland the two sons of a Pullman Porter, six-year-old hyper Eliot, a gifted student himself, and his brother Dwight who at twelve is discovering he likes boys more than girls, grow up in a world punctuated by the county fair, extended family picnics, a visit from A. Philip Randolph and the legacy of a lynched great-aunt. The four mature into men directly confronting the fierce resistance to the early civil rights movement, and are all ultimately uprooted, navigating a deaf urban world, the working class suburbs of the early calculator boom, a community fresh from the Panther heyday being accosted by the onset of AIDS. Their journey culminates in an explosive and devastating encounter between the two families.

There are whole chunks of writing here that are simply sublime, places in which one gets swept away by the way [Corthron] subverts the rhythm of language to illuminate the familiar and allow it to be seen fresh.… She blindsides you. She sneaks up from behind. Sometimes, it is with moments of humor, but more often with moments of raw emotional power—moments whose pathos feels hard-earned and true…. [The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter] succeeds admirably in a novel's first and most difficult task: It makes you give a damn. It also does well by a novel's second task: It sends you away pondering what it has to say.

–Leonard Pitts Jr., The New York Times Book Review (Editor's Choice)


Kia Corthron's first novel is a stunning achievement by any measure—a riveting saga of two twentieth-century American families trapped inside the quotidian contradictions and compulsions of race, disability, and sexuality. The untidiness of history is conveyed through experiences, dreams, and inevitable eruptions of violence, yet also unexpected patterns of escape and possible orbits of justice.

–Angela Y. Davis


Kia Corthron has written a magnificent, truly epic tale of the American Century told through the lives of two families, four brothers, three generations, big movements and small moments. It deserves a place among the great American novels precisely because it cuts to the very heart of America: the color line. In vivid, often breathtaking language, she reveals a changing world where love and sex and violence can rain down in the same cloudburst, and laughter and terror mingle easily, where the color line is not merely a barrier but a jump rope, a noose, a sign, and above all a tether that binds her characters and this country together.

–Robin D. G. Kelley, author of Thelonious Monk:

The Life and Times of an American Original


Corthron's big, open-hearted debut novel has echoes of noted writers from the mid-20th century, which serves as its backdrop: the social conscience of Steinbeck, the epic sweep of Ferber, the narrative quirks of Dos Passos…. This huge novel has the intimacy of memoir; Corthron's narrative voice makes it easy for readers to immerse themselves in the book, rarely coming up for air.

Publishers Weekly


Magnet Carter qualifies as a full-blown saga, with historical scope and a literary heartbeat, and uses the trajectories of its characters' lives from 1941 to 2010 to illustrate the human cost of America's legacy of slavery. It's daring, poetic, and unapologetically political.... Equally central to the stark political, racial, and socioeconomic realities of Corthron's vision are the striking poetics of her language, which mixes erudition with vernacular with bold imagery, all beautifully cadenced.

–Lisa Shea, Elle


[The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter] plants itself in Dos Passos territory in its scope, ambition and pointed political sympathies. But most of all it shares a fascination with America's voices and the way that speech unites and divides…. Binding this impressive novel is a beleaguered concept of justice: The title grows from young Eliot's mishearing of the words "Magna Carta." However misspoken or betrayed, this ideal is never wholly extinguished.

The Wall Street Journal


The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter is a stunning novel. Kia Corthron plunges us into generations of American history, moving with force and subtlety through the charged realities of race, gender and region. It is a novel of ideas and politics, of psychological complexity and of vibrant, kinetic language.

–Margo Jefferson, author of Negroland


The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter by Kia Corthron took my breath away. Sweeping, epic, it crosses America from 1941 to 2010, following the lives of four men—two white, two black. Corthron has such an exquisite ear, not just for language but the heartbeat of our lives; the delicate way people traverse the world. Her characters are beautifully, complexly rendered. At 789 pages, this is a novel that teaches as much about American history as it does about humanity—our collective ability to create harm as well as joy. This is what they mean by great American literature. The Castle is not just the best book I read all year. It's one of the best books I've ever read.

–Rene Denfeld, author of The Enchanted,
quoted in Willamette Week


[Corthron] makes her book debut with a 700+ pager that re-imagines the Great American Novel. It's the story of two families—one white, one black—enduring and resisting the upheaval of the Civil Rights era, told with the intimacy and fervor of a writer who has spent years fine-tuning dialogue.

The Fader (#1 on its "21 Books to Read While You Ride Out Winter")


Q: What's the last great book you read?
A: Kia Corthron's The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter. This big, ambitious, challenging novel...tells the 20th-century history of the United States through the intersecting lives of two white brothers and two black brothers. It is, by turns, tender, brutal and redemptive.

–Pulitzer Prize winner Viet Thanh Nguyen interviewed in "By the Book"
The New York Times Book Review


In the tradition of Toni Morrison, Alex Haley and Alice Walker, [Corthron] makes the personal political, creating an epic portrayal of race in America.



When I first read it, I was stunned. It's a haunting and devastating tale, leavened with humor and hope.... I believe [The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter] is the most important piece of writing about twentieth-century America since James Baldwin's Another Country.

–playwright Naomi Wallace quoted in Elle


As I've said again and again, do not be scared off by the 796 page count of this tome.... It's at once heartbreaking, engaging, and holds a mirror up to ourselves in terms of the duplicity of being on a side of history that means you can do horrible things and still survive it but lose a lot in the process.... After this year it's a tome we need.

–Jennifer N. Baker, producer of the podcast Minorities in Publishing
from her blog "Favorite Books of 2016"


Books that have made my heart race, or swell, with their brilliance this year include . . . the sublime craft and fearless ambition in Kia Corthron's The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter

–Lucy Davies, Royal Court Theatre Executive Director, quoted in The Guardian


Baltimore Sun Top 10 Beach Reads