Summary and book reviews of The Twelve-Mile Straight by Eleanor Henderson

The Twelve-Mile Straight

A Novel

by Eleanor Henderson

The Twelve-Mile Straight by Eleanor Henderson X
The Twelve-Mile Straight by Eleanor Henderson
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2017, 560 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 18, 2018, 560 pages

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Book Summary

From New York Times bestselling author Eleanor Henderson, an audacious American epic set in rural Georgia during the years of the Depression and Prohibition.

Named a Best Book of 2017 by The San Francisco Chronicle
An Entertainment Weekly "Must-Read" Book for Fall

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.

Acclaimed author Eleanor Henderson has returned with a novel that combines the intimacy of a family drama with the staggering presence of a great Southern saga. Tackling themes of racialized violence, social division, and financial crisis, The Twelve-Mile Straight is a startlingly timely, emotionally resonant, and magnificent tour de force.

ONE

Genus Jackson was killed in Cotton County, Georgia, on a summer midnight in 1930, when the newborn twins were fast asleep. They lay head to toe in a cradle meant for one, Winnafred on one side and Wilson on the other. In their overstuffed nest, with the delicate claws of their fingers intertwined and their eyelids trembling with blue veins, they looked like a pair of baby chicks, their white skullcaps like two halves of the single eggshell from which they'd hatched. Only if you looked closely—and people did—could you see that the girl was pink as a piglet, and the boy was brown.

"He's just complected dark," Elma had told her fiancé, Freddie Wilson, that afternoon, when he'd peeked into the cradle for the first time. "It's my great-great- granddaddy's Indian blood."

"He don't look like no Indian," said Freddie, who was as freckled as Elma, with hair as pale and straight as straw.

It was Elma's father, Juke—who'd nearly ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. The novel's namesake, the twelve-mile straight, is a road that connects the Jesup family farm to the nearest town. From the initial lynching of Genus Jackson, the road remains thematically important throughout the whole novel. In what ways does the road act as a character in its own right?
  2. How does the relationship between Elma and Nan change over time? How is their relationship informed by the power imbalance between the two? In what ways is Elma able to protect Nan and in what ways does she fail?
  3. What is the historical impact of Prohibition and the Great Depression on the Jesup family and the farm?
  4. Which gender roles does Elma end up submitting to, and which are she able to subvert?
  5. The novel is ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

I don't know where to start, I loved this book SO MUCH! (Lee M). So far, this is my choice for best book of 2017- it's a page turner! (Rosemary K). I was blown away reading it; the prose and style were so captivating that I felt at times I was actually there in the moment as the events of the story unfolded (Janine S). I loved how the truths in the story were revealed slowly, in layers, reaching backward and forward in time (Kristine M). It will join other favorites on my bookshelf to be read again (Liz D).   (Reviewed by BookBrowse First Impression Reviewers).

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Media Reviews

Seattle Times

Riveting...Henderson immerses you in characters worthy of Flannery O’Connor...A masterful piece of storytelling.

Atlanta Journal-Constitution

An absorbing epic of poor Georgia farm people and other folks they encounter in dicey, hardscrabble times. The elegant yet swift and crafty storytelling is spiked with so many surprises.

Philadelphia Inquirer

This is one of the most beautiful books, as an object, I’ve ever held. What’s inside is even more beautiful: beautifully told, beautifully written, a story that penetrates to the American heart, and all the light and darkness therein.

O, the Oprah Magazine

[A] superb novel whose roots can be traced to Harper Lee and Carson McCullers.

Nylon Magazine

Affecting, profound...offers readers a rich, comprehensive portrait of the powerful forces at work in the Jim Crow South... Henderson does an incredible job.

Publishers Weekly

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.

Kirkus Reviews

Strong medicine, not always easy to swallow, but readers who like a challenge will relish this gifted writer's ambition and grit.

Author Blurb Victor Lavalle, author of The Changeling
This engaging, expansive novel manages to feel historical and, sadly, up to the minute as it probes the sins at the heart of the American experience...This is the kind of novel you sink into, live inside. When you’re finished, it will live inside you. A bravura performance.

Author Blurb Dana Spiotta, author of Innocents and Others
Lyrical...mesmerizing, disturbing, and wonderfully persuasive. The world is brutal even as the landscape is lush and seductive...Unstinting in showing us the everyday savagery of Jim Crow, of poverty, and of family abuse. A riveting, consequential story full of complex secrets and unexpected turns.

Author Blurb Cristina Henríquez, author of The Book of Unknown Americans
One of the deepest and most nuanced explorations of our shared humanity that I’ve read...The writing is so extraordinary it will make your teeth ache; the story is so compelling that you may gasp out loud...This is no ordinary novel. It is art of the highest order.

Author Blurb Bill Cheng, author of Southern Cross the Dog
A family drama, a mystery, a Southern Gothic, and a searing study of the complexities of race in America...Cotton County is a dark place, tortured by its own secrets, and it’s in Henderson’s expert hand and penetrating eye that those secrets are carried into light.

Author Blurb Christopher Tilghman, author of The Right-Hand Shore
An intricate and fascinating tale of maternity and paternity, of race and blood, of two young women doing what they must do to survive...This is brave material, confronted with unblinking honesty and woven with intelligence and grace.

Reader Reviews

Anl

Enjoyed
When I read the premise on the first few pages, I was underwowed. As I read on, I changed my mind as the author wove this through the plot in a believable and clever way. The characters were limited and well defined, so as to make the book a pleasant...   Read More

Susan Braun

Living near the 12 mile straight
32 years ago, my husband accepted an appointment that took our family as far from our roots as we could possibly imagine. Although we were living in a small Pennsylvania town in the heart of the Susquehanna valley as far removed from all the ...   Read More

Chris H. (Wauwatosa, WI)

Twelve-Mile Straight
This is a book of perspectives and impressions. It covers a time period during the depression and prohibition. It is wonderful in the way the characters and their lives are intertwined. It brings racism to the fore. It is such a gripping and page ...   Read More

Claire M. (Sarasota, FL)

The Twelve Mile Straight
There are so many reasons to read this vivid, beautifully written book about life as a sharecropper around the time of the depression. One is that if you think about it while you're reading you'll come away with a greater understanding of life as a ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Sharecropping in the Post Civil-War Era

The major characters in The Twelve-Mile Straight grew up as sharecroppers.

Merriam-Webster defines a sharecropper as "a tenant farmer…who is provided with credit for seed, tools, living quarters, and food, who works the land, and who receives an agreed share of the value of the crop minus charges." While farming methods similar to sharecropping have been used around the world for millennia, the concept of the tenant farmer became especially prevalent in the United States during the post-Civil War era known as Reconstruction (1863-1867) and through the first half of the 20th century.

During the last few months of the Civil War, Union General William T. Sherman issued what was known as "Field Order Number ...

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