The Twelve-Mile Straight is all about secrets, more secrets than you can shake a stick at. Folks might expect there would be some secrets when Elma Jesup delivered two babies, one white and one black. The scandal is compounded by a rape accusation and the lynching of a black field hand named Genus Jackson by a mob that was led in part by Juke Jesup, Elma’s father, and Fred Wilson, the grandson of the local seigneur (mill owner and land owner) upon whom everyone is financially dependent.
This is also the story of a lifelong friendship between Elma, the sharecropper’s daughter, and Nan, the daughter of a former field hand Sterling who left long ago and his wife Ketty who was friends with Elma’s mother and who took care of Elma when her mother died in childbirth. These two grew up as close as sisters. It’s a bond that ties them together and which leads them to carry on with the secrets.
This is a southern gothic novel so it will be stewed in racial horrors, economic injustices, and corruption. There will be violence, sexual assault, and Jim Crow will wave his blood flag all over. There is one thing that rings false, though. It’s 1931, the lynch mob is all white, the field hand is black, yet somehow the young man flees afraid of prosecution for murder. That is so unlikely. One of the benefits of Jim Crow was impunity. Add the economic levers his grandfather wielded and her has more than impunity.
I think The Twelve-Mile Straight is beautifully written. Henderson enriches the story with powerful visual imagery and writes for all the senses, with details that evoke the sights, sounds, smells, flavors, and feeling of the time and place. Most of the characters are morally complex. Even those we might perceive as evil have flashes of decency and those we might perceive as heroic their flaws and weaknesses. The great strength of this book, though, is the writing. Henderson has this oblique way of dropping information so her sentences just sidle up to you and unload these explosive revelations as they pass by, looking all innocent. It’s really quite remarkable and worth reading for that alone…and when you get a character like Nan and even Elma, on top of it…you’ve hit the jackpot.
The Twelve-Mile Straight was released yesterday. I was provided an e-galley for review by the publisher through Edelweiss.