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Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The Twelve-Mile Straight by Eleanor Henderson

The Twelve-Mile Straight by Eleanor Henderson
Published by Ecco ISBN 978-0062422088
Hardcover, $27.99, 520 pages

One of the great joys of reading is discovering an debut author whose work just blows you away. Eleanor Henderson did that to me with her 2011 novel Ten Thousand Saints, set in 1987 New York City and Vermont. It is such an amazing book (made into a movie in 2015), I put it on my Most Compelling Books of 2011 list.

I was thrilled to hear that Henderson would be at the Book Expo this year signing copies of her followup novel, The Twelve-Mile Straight.  I was first in a long line of people, all eager to tell her how much we loved Ten Thousand Saints and how we couldn't wait to read this new one.
Eleanor Henderson at the Book Expo

The setting for The Twelve-Mile Straight is a small town in Depression-era rural Georgia in 1930. Young Elma Jessup gives birth to two babies- one black, one white. Her daughter is the child of the grandson of the wealthy man who owns the farm that her sharecropper father Juke works. Elma and Juke accuse a young black man who works for Juke, Genus Jackson, of raping Elma resulting in Elma's son.

Juke, who made moonshine on the side that he sold to men in the town, convinced others to join him in making Genus pay by lynching him, dragging his body behind a truck and leaving it in the road in town. The death scene is horrific, and we soon learn that there is more to this story.

Elma's mother died when she was a baby, and Elma was raised by Ketty, their black housekeeper. Ketty's daughter Nan grew up with Elma, and they were best friends, even though Elma went to school and Nan worked with Ketty, eventually learning from her how to be a midwife.

As the story unfolds, we find out that there are many secrets in this house, secrets that will affect everyone who lives there for years to come. People are curious about Elma's two babies, and their two different fathers, and Elma eventually meets a doctor, Oliver, who wants to study this unique phenomenon.

Oliver is a terrific character; he suffers from polio and he wants to be a research doctor. He is fascinated and compassionate towards Elma and her babies. There is a couple, Sarah and Jim, who came from up North and work on Juke's land. Why they are there is a mystery, but they provide company for Elma, for which she is grateful. And gentle, quiet Genus is such a sweet young man, his murder is devastating.

There are some powerful scenes in the story, including a baptism for the babies, where several townsfolk turn out believing that at least one of the babies "has the devil in him." Oliver's memory of his time spent on a ship filled with other polio patients because people feared catching polio was heartbreaking.

Henderson creates such a sense of time and place, you can feel the blazing summer sun and see the dust kicking up on the twelve-mile straight road. The reader is transported to this world, one that she conjured from stories her father told of his growing up, one of eight children born to a sharecropper.

Her writing is so precise, it feels like she worked to craft the perfect sentence for each paragraph. I got so lost in The Twelve-Mile Straight that frequently I found myself completely tuning out my surroundings, losing all track of time and place.

But it is the relationship between Elma and Nan that is at the heart of this emotional, moving story. The two women are as close as sisters, but it is the secrets between them that drive the momentum of the book to its shattering conclusion.

I highly recommend The Twelve-Mile Straight, and if you haven't read Ten Thousand Saints, pick that one up too. I'm not the only one who feels this way, The Twelve-Mile Straight has made many Best of Fall lists. 

Eleanor Henderson is a professor at Ithaca College, and her website is here.
My review of Ten Thousand Saints is here.

1 comment:

  1. I loved Ten Thousand Saints and keep meaning to pick this one up!