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The Coldest Night Hardcover – April 3, 2012

3.9 out of 5 stars 63 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Amazon Best Books of the Month, April 2012: Spare. Elegiac. Well-crafted. These are words used to describe Robert Olmstead’s novel The Coldest Night—and all of them are true—but what really makes the book special is the imagery and emotion throughout. A seventeen-year-old Henry falls in love with Mercy, the young daughter of a judge. They run away to New Orleans, where they create their own private Eden, but eventually Mercy’s family locates them and forces the two lovers apart. Seeing few alternatives, Henry enlists to fight in the Korean War. One could read far into this novel and think that it is a book built around young love. But when Henry goes to Korea, the language lifts off to a new level. Though spare in its presentation, The Coldest Night is a novel of surprises. It is emotional and frequently profound. -- Chris Schluep


Editors’ Pick for Amazon’s Best of 2012 list

Publishers Weekly Best Books of the Year

Kirkus Reviews Top 25 Fiction Books of 2012


“The no-rush gait, the unadorned yet unambiguous description, the resonant alliteration . . . This is the kind of sentence that warms The Coldest Night and makes you wonder if Olmstead was meant to be a poet. But Olmstead is a novelist, and a very good one . . . It’s his depiction of war’s less monstrous aspects―the continuous repositioning of troops and reshuffling of strongholds, the ceaseless anticipation of surprise attacks, the unmitigated exhaustion―that steadily unsettles . . . These lines lend a humanity to war that descriptions of guts and gore alone cannot.”―The New York Times Book Review

“There are very few living American writers it would be fair to pair up with Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison in a review. Robert Olmstead, however, brings enough poetic oomph to his battlefield renderings to manage just fine . . . Put Olmstead on a battlefield and stand back. The writing is powerful and the imagery stark. Readers will find that the forgotten war roars back to life again in the pages of Olmstead’s excellent novel.”―The Christian Science Monitor

The Coldest Night is riveting, thoughtful and―in the large section set in Korea―harrowing . . . Olmstead is an immensely gifted stylist, his prose capable of conveying the magic and passion of first love as well as the ferocity of battle. He also has a knack for imagery as memorable as it is unexpected . . . Few write as powerfully or as realistically as Olmstead about the way war makes a boy grow up far too fast.”―The Washington Post

“Working-class boy meets rich girl, and forbidden passion flares, in this thought-provoking, unabashedly romantic novel set in the 1950s.”―O, The Oprah Magazine

“Robert Olmstead's The Coldest Night is an unusual treat in this era of formulaic airport paperbacks, lightly edited Internet releases and over-hyped pop fiction. It's not just a standout in terms of plot, character development and effective use of language; the reader immediately marvels that this is literature, in addition to being a great book.”―The Virginian-Pilot

“Robert Olmstead writes shellshocked prose with cadences that sound like early Hemingway . . . [The Coldest Night] has the courage of its convictions, and its descriptions of war and its aftermath are frighteningly credible.”―The Columbus Dispatch

“Crafted to captivate . . . Robert Olmstead’s eighth novel, The Coldest Night, mesmerizes . . . Its diction thrills with the splendor of a clear refrain sung by a chorale of swaying seraphim.”―The Courier-Journal  

“Breathtaking . . . Henry Childs' unforgettable first love and trial-by-combat in one of the Korean War's most harrowing battles are captured in revelatory language―and implanted in a tale of riveting suspense.”―Barnes & Noble Review

“Robert Olmstead, author of the national bestseller Coal Black Horse, delivers another work of prose with language so painstaking and exact it reads more like poetry. The Coldest Night is a treasure . . . His descriptions of nature are lush and bountiful, lending a measure of beauty to even the most forbidding of landscapes . . . Olmstead weds the nature of armed aggression to the nature of man without apology, even with compassion, seeking only understanding, which, during our second decade of continuous war, is no insignificant goal.”―BookPage

“A war story, a love story, a coming-of-age story―it’s a simple theme spun into a novel heartbreaking in its stark and stunning prose . . . This is the kind of war novel I love . . . Novels about the Korean War are few and far between, and this is a strong offering in that category. Recommended.”―Historical Novels Review


“Olmstead writes with ferocious economy . . . The book’s continuities are a deep pleasure: a near-mystical regard for horses, for mothers, for weapons―all wrapped in a kind of elegiac masculinity. Olmstead has some of the Cormac McCarthy penchant for mixing tenderness into his terror.”―The Cleveland Plain Dealer

“An unflinchingly realistic, yet artistic, condemnation of war. Disparate backgrounds and desperate times are a seductive combination. Olmstead makes good use of them, and what ultimately distinguishes his exceptional work from more pedestrian literature is his elegant prose. ‘Prosody’―the study of the art of versification―is a word that Henry may not have recognized, but readers of The Coldest Night will not have to consult a dictionary for its definition; Olmstead's writing demonstrates its meaning perfectly.”―BookBrowse

“[An] elegiac, gritty coming-of-age novel . . . Despite the narrative’s darkening vision (“The Lord is a man of war,” says Henry), enough redemption rescues Olmstead’s powerful, desolate, and well-crafted novel from becoming oppressively bleak.”―Publishers Weekly, starred review

“Olmstead (Coal Black Horse) has a spare, direct style that is most effective in the brilliant, engrossing combat descriptions and ironic marine banter.”―Library Journal

“It's extremes that rivet us in Olmstead's searing seventh novel: the heaven of first love; the hell of the battlefield . . . Olmstead’s extraordinary language gives us new eyes. An exceptionally fine study of love, war and the double-edged role of memory, which can both sustain and destroy. Prize-winning material.”―Kirkus Reviews, starred review

“Olmstead employs different authorial voices to shape the story. At times the tone is mythic, at times surreal . . . The Coldest Night is powerful, and often beautiful, storytelling.”―Booklist


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books; 1 edition (April 3, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 161620043X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1616200435
  • Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 1 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (63 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,389,156 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Amazon Customer VINE VOICE on March 18, 2012
Format: Hardcover
This is a very memorable and stark tale of love, war, and what comes after. Olmstead's spare style is reminiscent of Hemingway as he charts the coming of age of a seventeen year old who falls in love with the daughter of a Judge. They run away together, are married, then are separated as the Judge's family attacks him and abducts his wife. For lack of a better alternative, he signs up for the Korean War, and soon experiences the horrors of the retreat from Chosin reservoir.

There is a timelessness to this story which pierces your mind and keeps bringing images back to you. It's appropriate fare as we deal with the issues of the Iraq and Afghan veterans to think on Olmstead's portrait of "Henry"- scarred and tormented by his war experience, but really facing an even greater challenge in returning home, and conflicted by a desire to go back to the battlefield.

This novel has a more obvious appeal for male readers but I recommend it highly to any reader. It is award-level writing.
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Format: Kindle Edition
The writing was superb. A really difficult book to categorize.

The beginning, showing the background, relatives and life of young Henry were really fascinating, and very different from anything I have read before. His family were all hard men, the type I have met often. This part, in my opinion deserves five stars.

Then we have a long part about the love between Henry and Mercy, which was 90 percent their sexual encounters. Mercy seems to be a nymphomaniac as far as I can tell. Way, way too much of the hot, steamy monkey love. This part I could give only two stars.

The war story was one of the most gruesome and accurate depictions of the terrible Korean War, or any war, that I have ever read. I was glad "The Forgotten War" was recognized for the futile savagery of that combat.

I am a Korean War vet, and while I was fortunate enough to be a medic in an Army hospital, and never in combat, I listened to many patients, young kids who had no idea why they were there or what the object of that conflict was, tell these kinds of stories.

Again, the writing was exceptionally fine, and while this was terrible to read, it was an accurate depiction of the war near the Yalu River when hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldier came and decimated our soldiers and marines. As terrible as it was, this definitely deserves five stars also.

Henry's return trip to his home was very sad, yet it dragged on far too long, with a great amount of details that really had nothing to do with the story. Several pages, for example, were devoted to his going into a diner for dinner, the people he encountered, etc which did not have anything whatsoever to do with the plot. Much of this section was very boring. Two stars for this part.
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Format: Hardcover
This book reads like a classic. It has a sparse & manly writing style; gritty & damaged characters, scenes of war that had me cringing and turning pages as fast as I could. This is the third book telling the story of the Childs' family men with the main character, 17 year old Henry Childs, whose inheritance is a gun, a knife and war.

Part I starts out hot with young Henry and Mercy falling in love and losing their virginity. They run away to New Orleans where they live in a steamy torpor of love and denial. Part II moves on to cold with the coldest winter nights of the Korean war when the enemy attacks. There is no practice for being a man just as there is no practice for killing a man. Henry must kill or be killed. Part III is 18 year old Henry coming home from the hell of war & trying to forget it.

Olmstead has written an epic tale of a boy going to war and becoming a man. Each of the three sections is introduced by a quote. Part I: The Book of Job, Part II, The Iliad & Part III: The Odyssey. They foreshadow the epic changes in Henry; changes that by Part III, can be seen on his face and body. He tries to be normal & do normal things but the war keeps intruding on his mind; he has forgotten how to live.

I never remark on the cover of a book but the cover of this book was an unfortunate design. You would never guess from looking at the cover, this is such epic, classic literature and beautifully written. This book deserves literary awards. The cover looks like every other mediocre book on the shelf. I passed it by several times because the cover was so off-putting. The only reason I eventually picked it up was that it is an Algonquin Press book & written by Olmstead. Please don't let the cover deter you from reading this book!
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The last in the trilogy beginning with Coal Black Horse and including Far Bright Star, The Coldest Night will lift your heart and break it. Its lyrical passages and poignant love story, combined with moments of horrific violence and brutality, speak to the totality of human experience--all encompassed in a coming-of-age story you'll never forget.

The scenes at the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir in Korea are so beautifully rendered that the reader feels frozen, too, and prays that these men will find refuge in something other than death.

As always, Olmstead's language is economical yet rich, evocative, sometimes surprising, and always rewarding. Small moments catch the reader with fully realized,simple truth.

I will be reading this one several times over and I recommend it without reservation.
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