Eleanor Henderson’s debut novel, “Ten Thousand Saints”, was one of the best novels of about three years ago. Henderson has an amazing talent, first and foremost, as a storytelling, at which she truly excels. She’s returned with her second triumph, “The Twelve-Mile Straight”, a long but hugely compelling novel about life in Cotton County, Georgia, in the ’20s and ’30s, a tiny part of which is a twelve mile area from which the title takes its name.
Although, yet again, The New York Times Book Review insisted on having someone review this novel who complained that certain acts of kindness by whites in the South of those years could not have been accurate, we remind The Times and its reviewer that Henderson is writing fiction, not history, and that such criticism is annoying and vexing in such a context. Henderson’s greatest achievement in this novel is the complexity of all of her characters, both African-American and white, and the deep relationships/inter-relationships between these two racial groups is at the very center of this exceptional novel. We might say that Henderson’s novel revolves around the complex relationships between the Wilson family, who basically own the town and the mill which is the financial center of this region, and Juke Jessup, a white farmer who’s been working a piece of Wilson’s land for decades, and upon which he’s built a very successful still (The South was full of dry counties until very recently). Jessup’s only daughter, Elma, gets impregnated by Wilson’s grandson, while Nan, a black woman living with the Jessups, and whose own mother raised Elma after Elma’s mother, Juke’s wife, dies in childbirth; Nan and Elma are like sisters, and they bear children at the same time, both of whom are claimed to be twins of Elma’s. The paternity of these children runs like a deep wound/thread throughout this novel, and even the closest reading of the text will still leave many a surprise for the reader, when Henderson finally lets us know various paternities through many generations of Jessups and Wilsons; the babies’ paternities reveal the sexual and emotional interrelationships between both white and black families, whether consensual or not. Old Wilson and old Jessup have been friends since childhood, and their complex friendship/love/hatred is at the core of this novel, and Henderson’s reading of these men’s characters is as astute as Faulkner’s was, when writing about the interactions of whites and blacks in The South. Although we’re supposed to hate both men as readers, Henderson’s too smart for such simplicities, and her understanding of both characters cannot fail to leave the reader with some empathy for both, as well as for the mostly powerless African-Americans in this novel. The novel actually revolves around a lynching of an innocent black man working on the Jessup farm, a crime which will open up the paternity issues later in the book, and which was probably misread by the New York Times reviewer in intention if not in fact.
Henderson refuses any of her characters, primary, secondary or tertiary, anything less than the fullest of character development. Her understanding of character, and how place/environment/customs are critical in defining those who live in, in this case, The Twelve-Mile Straight, is as sophisticated and complex as any writer’s this year in any fiction (her abilities at delineating character was also one of the outstanding characteristics of “Ten Thousand Saints”). Henderson never, ever patronizes her characters, and her ability to full flush out the voiceless Nan (whose mother literally cuts out her tongue in an act of seeming madness when Nan is just a baby, so she’ll never have to say anything that might get her into trouble with the white man in her life) is exceptionally brilliant. No character is given less than the fullest complexity, and no character appears to be fully good or fully evil, as in life itself. Henderson’s world is one of grey, not black or white, and she’s one of the great psychologists of contemporary literature. She is also never preachy, and refuses to write her novel from the perspective of a postmodern 21st century ironist, nor is she posing as a novelist who’s really a sociologist or psychologist.
“The Twelve-Mile Straight” is great literature, and an especial treat for people who like long complex narratives, full of subtlety and pithy observations. I finished this novel with a sense of astonishment and what one very smart and immensely creative writer, Eleanor Henderson, has accomplished twice in three years, and look forward with the greatest of anticipation to see what Henderson writes next (I also note with delight that she was a student of Ann Beattie’s in her writing graduate program). This novel should be on anyone’s “best ten” of the year list; it will certainly be on mine, which will appear in December.