A twisted saga of race, class, family

Eleanor Henderson’s new novel a Southern gothic departure from punk rock debut.

“The Twelve-Mile Straight,” Eleanor Henderson’s muscular new novel set in Depression-era South Georgia, is a cautionary tale about bad optics and snap judgments.

In the opening scene, Elma Jesup’s newborn twins are suddenly the talk of Cotton County. Freddie Wilson, Elma’s reluctant fiancé, takes one peek into the cradle and demands answers. The baby girl’s skin is “pink as a piglet,” so why does the boy look sandy brown?

Within hours, farms along the road known as the Twelve-Mile Straight are abuzz with news that Elma has been raped by a black field hand. A furious mob led by Elma’s father, Juke Jesup, drags the accused to face his accuser. Genus Jackson claims he’s innocent, but the teary-eyed Elma gives her father a slight nod yes. They hang Genus on a gourd tree in the yard, then pelt him with rocks and bullets. Freddie ties the body to the back of his truck and drives into town to show the workers at his father’s mill.

The full-throttle beginning makes it clear that Henderson’s prose is not for the faint of heart. It’s obvious, too, that although the titular thoroughfare may run straight and true, the farmhouses of Cotton County hide some truly twisted situations.

The narrative goes Southern Gothic in introducing Nan, the black 14-year-old who lives with the Jesups. Her mother, a maid on the farm, cut out Nan’s tongue when she was a baby — an attempt to ward off the oral cancer that runs in the family. Now orphaned, Nan occupies an uncomfortable position in the domestic hierarchy, more than servant but less than sister.

At a glance, the novel marks a big departure from the author’s much-praised 2011 debut, “Ten Thousand Saints,” a coming-of-age story set in grungy East Village clubs in the late 1980s. Readers wowed by the sound and fury of the previous novel will find similar fearless storytelling in the latest, but still question how Henderson went from punk rockers to sharecroppers. While “Saints” was inspired by her husband’s youth, the latest sprouted out of stories she heard from her father about growing up in Fitzgerald on a dirt road called the Ten-Mile Straight.

Henderson spent years researching the region, focusing on a curious three-year gap in statewide lynchings in the late 1920s that was followed by a rash of six murders in 1930. Her fictional Cotton County brings to mind the late Harry Crews’ descriptions of nearby Bacon County, known for its “moonshining and bird dogs and violence.” The flat and brutal terrain is home to many sharecroppers but few landowners.

Juke Jesup, when not making moonshine, grows peanuts and cotton on a farm that belongs to Freddie’s grandfather, George Wilson, owner of the textile mill in town. George reports the lynching to the county sheriff, along with news that Freddie has gone on the lam. The sheriff heads to the farm to question Juke, but their confrontation confirms how much sway the so-called good ol’ boy network held in the Jim Crow era. Juke gets off with a handshake and a warning.

In scenes like these, the novel registers as a brash black comedy rife with shocking but believable details. We have a harder time buying that Freddie, grandson of the most powerful landowner in the county, would fear jail enough to skip town after a crime involving dozens of participants.

Juke, it turns out, is a far more complex character than the liquored-up hillbilly seen in the opening scene. As a boy, he endured sexual abuse and unspeakable cruelty, followed by the devastating losses of both his wife and his best friend, mill owner George Wilson’s son. Grief compounds the gnarly relationship between Juke and George, which proves to be more complicated than it first appears.

In some passages, Henderson’s affected Southernisms sound curiously hollow. Her self-assured style ultimately finds a happy medium between charming sassiness (“He’d give his last cow to the devil if the devil was hungry.”) and emotional resonance. In reflecting on her new friendship with an itinerant worker on the farm, Elma thinks “how strange it was that you never really knew anyone, that no matter how much your heart warmed to a stranger, she’d always be a stranger to you.”

The description could apply as well to Nan, who remains the novel’s most elusive and troublesome character. “As skinny and dark as a shadow,” Nan recedes even as we learn of her secret dreams of fleeing the farm and finding her lost father. It’s tempting to dismiss the character’s forced silence as a clunky plot contrivance, at best, or chalk it up to a white writer who may be overly cautious of being accused of cultural appropriation. The author calls attention to the issue in lines like, “Sometimes it was awful convenient, her having no tongue.”

Henderson, who grew up in Florida and teaches creative writing at Ithaca College in New York, is obviously aware of potential backlash against a black female character stripped of her voice — literally and figuratively. But that may be the point.

Our visceral reject of Nan doesn’t fully serve the story, but it does make us consider “Twelve-Mile Straight” in a new light. Watching Elma jump to understandable but false conclusions about the people she supposedly knows best reinforces the underlying messages about the unreliability of appearances and the destructive power of prejudice.

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