STARRED REVIEW
September 12, 2017

Two lives entwined

By Eleanor Henderson
Review by

Born into the enclave at Twelve-Mile Straight, Winna Jean, a white baby girl, and Wilson, a mixed-race boy, bear all its entanglements and liaisons.

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Born into the enclave at Twelve-Mile Straight, Winna Jean, a white baby girl, and Wilson, a mixed-race boy, bear all its entanglements and liaisons.

In both her 2011 hit, Ten Thousand Saints, and her new novel, The Twelve-Mile Straight, Eleanor Henderson uses complex family dynamics to depict an era—the former with 1980s New York City, the latter with rural Georgia in the late 1920s and early ’30s. In The Twelve-Mile Straight, Elma (white and talkative) and Nan (black and mute) grow up together, their fathers sharecroppers on George Wilson’s land, raising cotton, crops and gin. Ketty, Nan’s mother, raises them both after Elma’s mother dies in childbirth. When Ketty’s husband leaves the farm and she dies, the two girls live with Juke Jesup, Elma’s father, along with a string of helpers in the shack out back, until Winna and Wilson are born. The two encompass the soul of their rural home, the wholeness of its truth, however concealed and twisted it may be.

The plot unfurls like Creek Creek, along which Twelve-Mile Straight runs—not linearly, but going forward while folding back on itself, the past as much a part of the present as is hope for a better future. Like the gin Nan gives Genus Jackson, a farm hand, the baptismal water at the creek “might have been brewed by the devil’s hand, but it felt like the Lord’s kindness.”

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.

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The Twelve-Mile Straight

The Twelve-Mile Straight

By Eleanor Henderson
Ecco
ISBN 9780062422088

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