The Twelve-Mile Straight, by Eleanor Henderson
The Twelve-Mile Straight in 1930 is an unpaved Georgia road leading from a cotton mill town to the poor Negro wards at the impoverished end of the county. It is also the scene of the bloody murder of negro labourer Genus Jackson, accused of raping the daughter of the white share-cropper who employed him on the farm owned by the most powerful man in the county. Despite his innocence, he is lynched first, then dragged behind a pickup truck along the twelve-mile, and dumped broken and unrecognisable outside the sheriff’s office. His boots are missing, stolen by the driver of the pickup, who has since lit out for parts unknown.
So begins Eleanor Henderson’s explosive novel of Southern Georgia during the Depression, a state that would always be part of Old Dixie, regardless of the Civil War, Emancipation and all the other hard-won racial concessions: in 1930 white privilege, fear and hatred still rule, and the only difference from being slaves is that the coloureds are reluctantly paid starvation wages – if the cotton crop doesn’t fail. Elma Jesup, daughter of the share-cropper who made the accusations against Jackson has ostensibly given birth to twins, a girl red-headed and freckled like herself, and a boy who is obviously mulatto: she is a Jezebel! There she was, engaged to the grandson of Mill-owner George Wilson (also red-headed and freckled) but she done crawled into bed with a nigger! The town ladies vow never to associate with her or her wild, nigger-loving father Juke, even though they know the same could be said of their own feckless husbands; they can’t seem to stay away from them coloured gals and the number of ‘terminations’ that Doc Rawls has to ‘arrange’ is proof of that fact.
In prose that should be the envy of all aspiring writers, Ms Henderson describes Elma’s attempts to make something of her young life and circumstances against the backdrop of racism and unchanging views as old as the hills beyond her home: the writer’s voice is clear and sweet when she describes Elma’s undying sisterhood with her mute negro housegirl Nan, and harsh as a crow’s call when she writes of incest and unspeakable cruelty on the farm, and the hypocritical lengths that Southern society will pursue in order to preserve the old, comfortable way of life. As we all know nearly ninety years later, old attitudes die hard, and sometimes don’t die at all. ‘The Twelve-Mile Straight’ is a monument to all those who struggled for dignity and change – and are still doing so. SIX STARS