...[a] totally immersing, provocative historical novel ... The world of Twelve Mile Straight—the rural back road of this engrossing novel’s title, with its illegal distillery, chain gangs, and lynchings—will continue to haunt readers long after they finish the final page.”
Henderson offsets these slightly stock characters by paying truth to the schizophrenia of Jim Crow, an evil complicated by the terrifying proximity of oppressed to oppressor. Her observations of this dynamic are powerful ... Empathy for its troubled cast is one of the novel’s great strengths; at its most insightful and compassionate, the sentences sing ... But Henderson’s empathy isn’t always adequate to the job of parsing her characters’ experience. As we learn, Nan’s mother, Ketty, cut out her child’s tongue with a scalpel when Nan was a baby...In the end I had to wonder why the only living black woman in this novel is rendered doubly powerless by being unable to speak ... Part of the problem here may be the novel’s desire to correct the past, in a sense...Well intentioned though it may be, that sort of corrective gesture makes our long and difficult racial past a lot easier for contemporary readers to digest. It shouldn’t be; white people are still murdering black folks and nobody seems to be running from their crimes ... The Twelve-Mile Straight is well worth reading. It’s a page turner, a novel to settle into. But good intentions can’t replace its responsibility to the complexities of its subject matter. Heart-wrenching though it may be, diving into certain waters requires reckoning with the creatures in those depths.
After the gruesome opening, the narrative energy dissipates. Eleanor Henderson's The Twelve-Mile Straight can feel like a slog, nearly 600 pages of human suffering told in the third person, through the lenses of various members of the community. It is clotted with too many similar stories and indistinguishable voices: Done with more care, this labyrinthine quality could drive home the point that discrete groups work interdependently to maintain the status quo and protect the powerful, that each member of a community plays a role in perpetuating racism. But as it is, The Twelve-Mile Straight reads like a cavalcade of indistinguishable brutality without sufficient nuance.
Henderson explores how opposites—innocence and guilt, sound and silence, cowardice and bravery, malice and goodwill—inform each other. She hands us her story, inspired by her father’s childhood home, as a mother entrusting us to witness its growth, so that it might teach us to love. The tone is brutally honest, voiced by strong characters, particularly heroines who are models for all women.
...to be fair, Eleanor Henderson’s excellent second novel, The Twelve-Mile Straight, possesses many Faulknerian elements ... In its early sections, the novel jumps between times and characters ...centers on a mystery — who are the twins’ actual parents? — that isn’t a mystery for very long. Early on, we know that Juke is at the center of it all. More specifically, we know that Juke’s sexual relationships with both Nan and her deceased mother will untie the knot of parentage. The characters in the novel know this, too ...a grander, meatier novel, as befits its subject matter. The tangled plot might be the stuff of melodrama, but so is American racial history. Besides, the writing is precise, not purplish ...such happenings aren’t just the stuff of the imagination, they’re the stuff of American history, and Henderson’s book gives this history, with all its ghosts and secrets and desires, powerful voice.
Despite Henderson’s evident compassion for her characters, she gives them hardly a moment of grace from the dark opening to the brutal denouement, which makes the tentatively hopeful epilogue somewhat difficult to credit. Strong medicine, not always easy to swallow, but readers who like a challenge will relish this gifted writer’s ambition and grit.
Lingering in the overheated world of the Deep South during the Depression, the convoluted second novel by Henderson delves into questions of race, class, and gender, sometimes at the expense of character development ... The richly detailed landscape of the volatile mill town where the novel is set immerse the reader in an unsentimental version of the South under economic and social pressure. The plot of the novel is less promising: readers are likely to figure out supposed secrets long before they are revealed.