Eleanor Henderson’s second novel, “The Twelve-Mile Straight,” is a masterful piece of storytelling. She will appear Sept. 18 at Elliott Bay Book Co.
“The Twelve-Mile Straight”
by Eleanor Henderson
Ecco, 539 pp., $27.99
“The Twelve-Mile Straight,” Eleanor Henderson’s second novel, plunges you into the Jim Crow South with stunning fierceness. A white girl named Elma Jesup claims she has given birth to twins, one with light skin like her own and the other “just complected dark,” as she explains to Freddie Wilson, the alleged father.
This distinction is no small matter in a world where race is the bright line that determines a person’s status and future. To settle the matter of the babies’ apparent difference, a black man is accused of raping Elma, and a white mob lynches him.
From this tragic beginning emerges a riveting tale that explores issues of identity, both genetic and tribal. The story stays tightly focused on its place and time — backwater Georgia, circa 1930 — as it pivots backward and forward chronologically and unfolds from different points of view. In the end, the true paternity of Elma’s infants will be established, but not before Henderson immerses you in characters worthy of Flannery O’Connor and a drought-cursed landscape with a river “no bigger than your biggest cow, tongue to tail.” Connecting the town to farm is the dirt road known as the Twelve-Mile Straight.
The author of “The Twelve-Mile Straight” will appear at 7 p.m. Monday, Sept. 18, at Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com).
In this landscape, the law is what the cotton mill owner, George Wilson, says it is. His heel rests heavy on the neck of Elma’s sharecropper father, Juke, who produces the bootleg gin that lubricates George’s bottom line. Juke, in turn, presses even harder against the blacks who work his land, including Genus Jackson, the man who will pay for Elma’s lie with his life.
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“These ain’t slave times,” Genus tells Elma. “You can’t hold a body captive no longer.”
“I know that,” she fires back. “But my daddy don’t.”
Sexual tension rises like a serpent’s tail, finding its release when the strong overpower the weak. The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union meets behind lace curtains while the illegal still works overtime. Yet the biggest hypocrisy of all is how the races are intimately intertwined yet distinctly separate. Why? Myriad reasons, of course, but for disenfranchised whites, Henderson observes, “their loyalty to each other was a tonic for their shame.”
Shame, however, is a condition that the pretty, brash Elma — a Scarlett O’Hara with the common touch — will not accept.
“I thought you said we got nothing to hide,” Elma taunts her father after the local doctor stops by to see the newborns.
“I ain’t ascaired of the police or the papers,” Juke declares, unconvincingly. He has plenty of reason to be “ascaired.”
Against Juke’s order, Elma accepts an invitation to go to Atlanta, where the doctor’s son, Oliver Rawls, is doing research on sickle cell anemia, an inherited disease found mainly among blacks. Oliver’s childhood polio subsequently shapes the story just as he shapes the destiny of both Elma and Nan, the mute black girl who is both her servant and companion. Ultimately, Oliver penetrates the mystery at the heart of the book.
If the plot feels a bit neat, it’s rescued by Henderson’s execution, which includes an acute eye for detail and ear for both dialogue and dialect. In 2011, The New York Times named Henderson’s first novel, “Ten Thousand Saints,” one of the 10 best books of the year. “The Twelve-Mile Straight,” a masterful piece of storytelling that probes issues of injustice and race, is every bit its match.