Eleanor Henderson discusses the themes in her new novel, The Twelve-Mile Straight. Tender and savage, heart-breaking and hopeful, and deeply human, this novel combines the intimacy of a family drama with the grandeur of an American epic and will appeal to fans of American classics by Harper Lee, Toni Morrison and William Faulkner.
After the publication of my first novel, Ten Thousand Saints, which is about hardcore punk, the AIDS epidemic, the Tompkins Square Park Riot, a drug overdose, and a teenage pregnancy, a well-meaning silver-haired lady in the audience at a bookstore raised her hand and asked, “How did a nice girl like you come to write this book?” I think I know what she meant: nothing in the bio under my smiling author photo revealed any clear connection to the gritty material of 1980s New York.
I’ve just finished my new novel, and this time around, readers are no more likely to be able to draw a straight line between my own story and the one in the book, which is about sharecroppers, bootleggers, midwives, a cotton mill, a chain gang, a lynching, and a pair of twins, one dark-skinned, one light, born in Georgia in 1930.
In writing Ten Thousand Saints, I was drawn to the world my husband, Aaron, grew up in. With The Twelve-Mile Straight, I was drawn to my father’s.
He was born in a small town in south Georgia in 1932, one of eight children. His parents were sharecroppers on two hundred acres of peanuts, corn, tobacco, and cotton. My grandparents didn’t finish but six grades of school, but like many during the Depression, they were resourceful. My childhood was filled with stories of my father’s rural youth—one older brother washing him with kerosene after he painted himself with tar, another convincing him that a potato carried in the pocket of his overalls would turn to stone, another catching a skunk in a rabbit trap. There were hard times on the farm, but mostly they were stories of hard work, a little trouble, and simple adventures on the dirt road they called the Ten-Mile Straight.
When I began to imagine the world of Cotton County, I wanted to capture the innocence of those country stories, and also to fracture it.
I knew there was a darker narrative running alongside this one, like the quiet creek running along what I call the “Twelve-Mile Straight” in my novel, but it wasn’t easy for me to find the right path to it. While Ten Thousand Saints was about a world outside my own sphere of experience, this new material was even further outside that circle. My family may have roots in Georgia, but the Florida I grew up in was by no measure the Deep South. It turns out I had the same question as that well-meaning lady at the bookstore: What was I doing writing this book? Who was I — a white woman living in the North—to tell this story?
The questions that nagged at me have not disappeared; in fact, they loom larger than ever.
But I can tell you that I made the decisions in the book as painstakingly as I could, trying to shape every sentence as artfully and ethically as possible. I hoped that the reader might forget the author in the picture, and stop seeing the pages, and live for a while in Cotton County. I hope you do, too.
Genus Jackson was killed in Cotton County, Georgia, on a summer midnight in 1930, when the newborn twins were fast asleep. They lay head to toe in a cradle meant for one, Winnafred on one side and Wilson on the other. Only if you looked closely – and people did – could you see that the girl was pink as a piglet, and the boy was brown.
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 her rape, field hand Genus Jackson is lynched and dragged down the Twelve-Mile Straight, the road to the nearby town.
Despite the prying eyes and curious whispers of the townspeople, Elma begins to raise her babies as best as she can, under the roof of her impulsive father, Juke, and with the help of Nan, the young black housekeeper who is as close to Elma as a sister. It soon becomes clear that the ties that bind all of them together are more intricate than any could have imagined. A web of lies begins to collapse around the family, destabilizing their precarious world and forcing all to reckon with the truth.
The Twelve-Mile Straight is out now.