“Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced,” James Baldwin once wrote. Trying to change a country in the midst of the most aggressive resurgence of white supremacist groups in 100 years is too tall an order for any novelist; just facing it is daunting enough.
Eleanor Henderson has broken new ground with her searing novel The Twelve-Mile Straight, which begins with the lynching of a black farmhand for the alleged rape of a white woman in 1930s Georgia. As Henderson began to write the book, she wondered, “Who needs to read another book about the Jim Crow South?” Over the years she spent researching the period and writing the novel, she found that, as she told Paste in a recent interview, “the kinds of mob violence and injustice that I write about in the book, that I hoped were shelved in the archives, are now in daily newspaper headlines.”
Henderson’s confessed “personal obsession” with the segregation-era South began with her father’s stories of growing up in a family of white sharecroppers in Georgia in the 1930s. She also gleaned much insight from Arthur Franklin Raper’s The Tragedy of Lynching (1933)—a jarring, almost-real-time study of America’s 20 documented lynchings in 1930—and The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson’s watershed 2010 book on the Great Migration and the brutal social and economic conditions that drove six million African-Americans out of the South between 1916 and 1970.
The incident that stirs a Cotton County, Georgia mob to racial violence in the opening pages of The Twelve-Mile Straight is the phenomenally unlikely birth of twins, one black and one white, to Elma Jesup, the daughter of Juke, a white sharecropper and moonshiner. The white twin presumably belongs to Freddie Wilson, her rogue fiancé, grandson of the man who owns the cotton land the Jesups work. The presumed father of the black twin is Elma’s father’s hired hand, Genus Jackson, who lives in a tarpaper shack on the same farm. Though Jackson insists he’d sooner lay with Juke Jesup’s mule than his daughter, mob rule prevails and the lynching is on.
Although Henderson’s intricately wrought re-creation of 1930s Georgia, with its layered racial and economic caste systems, draws heavily on extensive archival research, the captivating medical mystery at the heart of the novel comes from a more unlikely source: the author’s longtime love of TV soap operas.
“My husband and I watched Days of Our Lives devotedly for years,” Henderson says, “and they always had these subplots about, ‘Oh actually, one of the twins’ daddies is Raphael and one of them is Augusto,’ and I thought that was just bunk.” Likewise, the rumor that seems like so much ignorant backwoods superstition in The Twelve-Mile Straight is, in fact, a peculiar medical phenomenon known as “heteropaternal superfecundation.” Beyond the intriguing science of it all, to Henderson, the birth of twins with different fathers suggested rich narrative possibilities in the segregated South: “What would it be like to live in the same household or even share a womb with somebody who’s supposed to be more like you than anybody else, but may look very different from you, and may be very different from you?”
Though the birth of the twins and the lynching of one of their presumed fathers sets The Twelve-Mile Straight in motion, the real driving force of the novel is the relationship between Elma and her de facto sister, Nan. Born four years after Elma to the Jesups’ black house-maid, Nan grows up an orphan in the Jesups’ rented house. Shortly before her own death from oral cancer, Nan’s mother cut out her daughter’s tongue, rendering her mute. Together, Nan, Elma, and Juke form a peculiar sort of family not altogether uncommon in the Jim Crow or slavery-era South: closely bound in some respects and institutionally unequal in others. Elma and Nan grow up together, and then they raise the twins together.
Nan’s silence emerges painfully as a practical problem throughout the story, and proves an evocative metaphor for her powerlessness as an exploited young black woman who finds her every attempt at communication opportunistically interpreted as assent. Nan’s muteness also compels Elma to speak for her frequently throughout their lives, “and she does so often and inaccurately and incompletely because, of course, we can’t ever know exactly what’s in someone else’s mind and heart,” Henderson says. “But she does so with great love and good intention.” Elma’s inherent insufficiency as Nan’s interpreter also speaks to the challenges Henderson faced in the risky endeavor of writing across race: “I wanted to look at the very limitations that I was experiencing as a writer in the story.”
In addition to the tight confines of the Jesups’ farm, The Twelve-Mile Straight takes readers to some remarkable places, always brought to life in Henderson’s lean, vivid prose. Elma and Nan’s story expands to encompass an underfunded laboratory at Emory University dedicated to the pioneering study of sickle-cell anemia in African-Americans, and the world-renowned hydrotherapy facility in Warm Springs, Georgia that Franklin Roosevelt first visited for polio treatment in 1924. As stunning archival footage of the president gamboling in Warm Springs’ Roosevelt Pools with polio-afflicted children illustrates, FDR remained deeply engaged with and devoted to Warm Springs for the rest of his life.
The Twelve-Mile Straight reminds us that—like every hospital (and pool) in the Jim Crow South—Warm Springs was a segregated institution that didn’t accept black patients. “I thought this would be one way to connect Georgia to the larger political scene at that time,” Henderson explains. “I was really interested in FDR’s role there. When I began to research segregation there and saw how it prevailed even in this place of hope and redemption and recovery and magical thinking, it seemed tragic to me that even this white savior of a president was not willing to rock the boat. There were letters from black doctors to him saying, ‘My son has polio, please let me send him to you,’ and he said no.”
Though Henderson says her editor initially balked at Roosevelt’s appearance in the story, facing the problem in all its facets took precedent. “It was important to me to show just how deep and how corrosive Jim Crow was.”
Steve Nathans-Kelly is a writer and editor based in Ithaca, New York.