A dark, historical novel that delves into the fractures of race, class, and family in rural Georgia. 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. 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.
...[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.