REVIEW: The Twelve-Mile Straight, Eleanor Henderson

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Cotton County, Georgia, 1930: 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 behind a truck down the Twelve-Mile Straight, the road to the nearby town. 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.
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 mercurial father, Juke, and with the help of Nan, the young black housekeeper who is as close to Elma as a sister. But soon it becomes clear that the ties that bind all of them together are more intricate than any could have ever imagined. As startling revelations mount, a web of lies begins to collapse around the family, destabilizing their precarious world and forcing all to reckon with the painful truth.

The Twelve-Mile Straight is not an easy book to read. It is not one that you read in one sitting or one that you read whilst sipping a cocktail, transported to a feeling of bliss. There is no happiness to be found in these pages, only anger and frustration and annoyance at the fact that you can’t step into them and save the characters from the cruel world in which they inhabit. I had to keep taking a step back from this book, to rant and rave to my grandma (who is the only one willing, although her actual willingness is debatable, to listen to my bookish opinions) about the repeated injustices that the characters faced.
People in this book suck - they are mean, and selfish, and cruel, and ring human in a way that makes them even more so. They repeatedly act in a despicable way simply because that is how the world is, but no one ever seems to question whether that should be the case. Truly, the only one of them I did not feel an ounce of contempt for was Nan, who was subjected to the most injustices of all. For, even the protagonists, the nice characters who you were supposed to root for, had a habit of weaving their goodness with wickedness. This is particularly evident in the male characters, most of which I was starting to wish for their penises to be removed, brutally and without anaesthetic. For no matter how nice they may have seemed, their inner monologues were still filled with harems with them as their sole centre, or horrifyingly, visions of sexual assault.
The Twelve-Mile Straight does not shy away from violence in all of its forms, whether that be verbal, sexual, or even in the sickening form of lynch-mobs. The sheer volume of slurs is difficult to read and each one of them feels like a violent blow against both the reader and the characters they are aimed at. That these words were a normal part of people’s vocabulary is a horrifying thing to confront.
To put it bluntly, the world of this book (and certainly, our own world) would be better if everyone just minded their own business. So much of the horrors of The Twelve-Mile Straight come from the lengths people go to not be seen as immoral or sinful in their neighbours’ eyes, people offering their opinions on things that don’t concern them, or them righting perceived-injustices but instead just continuously causing them. This book shows how the brutal court of public opinion can behave as judge, jury and execution and makes you question whether times have truly changed that much since the decade in which this book is set.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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