Cotton County, Georgia, 1930: In a house full of secrets, two babies–one light-skinned, the other dark–are born to Elma Jesup, a white sharecropper’s daughter. Accused of raping Elma, field hand Genus Jackson is lynched and dragged behind a truck down the Twelve-Mile Straight, the road to the nearest town. In the aftermath, the farm’s inhabitants are forced to contend with their complicity in a series of events that left a man dead and a family irrevocably fractured.
Despite the prying eyes and curious whispers of the townspeople, Elma begins to raise her babies as best she can, under the roof of her mercurial father, Juke, and with the help of Nan, the young black housekeeper who is as close to Elma as a sister. But soon it becomes clear that the ties that bind all of them together are more intricate than any could have ever imagined. As startling revelations mount, a web of lies begins to collapse around the family, destabilizing their precarious world and forcing all to reckon with the painful truth.
New York Times bestselling author Eleanor Henderson has returned with an audacious American epic that combines the intimacy of a family drama with the staggering presence of a great Southern saga. Set in the years of the Depression and Prohibition, and tackling themes of racialized violence, social division, and financial crisis, The Twelve-Mile Straight is a startlingly timely, emotionally resonant, and magnificent tour de force.
In a world that seems to be moving backwards, with the rise of the far right in the US and here in the UK, this is a pertinent novel. We kid ourselves that we’ve moved so far, that we have achieved equality, but the prejudice and discrimination written here is unfortunately only too real almost a hundred years later.
Sharecropper’s daughter Elma gives birth to twins – one light-skinned, one dark. Not surprisingly, this garners a great deal of interest, and gossip, and the result is that field hand Genus, deemed to have raped Elma, is lynched.
But there’s more to the twins’ conception and birth than meets the eye. And Elma, her father Juke, and housekeeper Nan find themselves entangled in a web of lies and deceit.
The writing is so evocative – 1930’s Georgia is brought to life with a confident yet careful touch. The little details of everyday life really help set the scene and the poverty, the frustration and the dreadful unfairness are portrayed not always through dramatic events and tragedies, but through the every day constraints, degradation and brutality that one group of people inflict on another.
The narrative shifts viewpoints and we get to know the story from all the main characters which adds a depth to the novel and makes the reader feel involved and invested. Each characters feels real, and authentic, and their actions and reactions, their decisions, their mistakes and their desperation, carry the narrative along.
There are shadows of Harper Lee here, and Carson McCullers and Williams Faulkner – with writing that is sparse at times and as dry and barren as the Georgia fields in drought, at other times vibrant, full of colour and life.
This isn’t a pleasant, happy read. But it is an important one. Like Britain’s history of colonialism, the US has never seemed to really address its past, admit its guilt and make amends. That it isn’t too hard to imagine the events of this book happening still is a sad indictment of how little we’ve progressed. A must read.
Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the review copy.