Take a trip down Twelve Mile Straight: Eleanor Henderson

The Twelve Mile Straight is as Southern as fried chicken.

Two babies are born at Cross Roads Farm – one mulatto, one white.

People come from miles around to view the babies – a miracle of nature. Born to a white woman, Elma, the children are said to have two fathers – one white; her fiancée, Freddie Wilson, – one black, believed to have been forced on her by Genus Jackson.

Genus Jackson is lynched without trial at the beginning of the book. Will those responsible get away with it?

Juke Jessup is hiding a still. His intentions towards Nan, the house girl, are less than fatherly. His own daughter Elma, is “fixin” to be wed to Freddie Wilson, the local cotton mill owner’s son. But when the twins are born, all hell breaks loose.

Cover of To kill a mockingbirdLike Light in August and To Kill a Mockingbird, this is a story of injustice for all. Racial segregation was still prevalent in 1930s Georgia, where African-American people were barely removed from slavery.

To say that women in this story get a raw deal is an understatement. Even the man pulling the strings in town, George Wilson, is not spared from the sufferings he hands down the pecking order.

Each character has a tale to tell in this riveting book. And they all have secrets. Dreams too – sometimes their dreams are all they have.

Nan has grown up on Crossroads Farm after the death of her mother, the housekeeper Ketty. She dreams of the return of her father, Sterling, but never loses sight of stark reality even while she fantasizes about the future:

She had long had a picture in her mind of his homecoming: he would come up the driveway in an automobile, a Pontiac or Chevrolet, with a licence plate that said MARYLAND. The dogs would go out to greet him first and she’d step out onto the porch. He’d be wearing a Sunday suit and a wide-brimmed hat, which he’d tip up to get a better look at her, and then he’d take off the hat and hold it over his heart, and his eyes would see and see her. And then she would know. She would recognize him. She would recognize her own face in his.

But she knew nothing happened the way you imagined it. That was how she knew it was real.

It’s not a question of whether the truth will out, it’s when – it slowly but surely leaks through the holes in the characters’ stories, gathering together to a flow as large as the local creek.

Eleanor Henderson writes with feeling, strong historical influence and an eye for a poetic phrase. Despite most reviewers’ perception of this as a tragic story, I was pleased with its conclusion.

I got lost on The Twelve Mile Straight. You will too.

Twelve Mile Straight
by Eleanor Henderson
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
ISBN: 9780008158699

Find more in our collection:

My absolute darling: Possession, Love and Redemption

My Absolute Darling is an endearment from anyone else’s lips, but from Martin Alveston to his daughter Turtle (real name Julie, aka Kibble), it is a term of possession and ownership of the worst kind.

This debut novel by American Gabriel Tallent, centres around Turtle and her father. Turtle’s mother died before she had a chance to remember her, and her father lives in survivalist mode in a run down filthy house, readying his 14 year old daughter for the end of the world. He also physically, verbally and sexually abuses her and Turtle sees no worth in herself when the book begins, everything is her fault and her future is fixed and non-negotiable.

She stands up out of the tub and sees her figure reflected in the picture window, Martin behind her, leaning forward in the chair, squinting, scraping his thumb down the side of his jaw, and both of them looking at her, long legs barred black and green with bruises. She takes a towel from the rack and wraps it around herself and walks past him, her gait lopsided and short.

The book is filled with detail, everything Turtle does, sees and lives through is described in infinate detail. This may drive some people crazy, I found it poetic and gripping at times, and at others, just too bleak and confronting. Many people have made a comparison to Cormac McCarthy, one of my absolute favourite authors. I wouldn’t go as far as to say he’s that good, but the similarities are there and subsequent novels may nudge him closer.

The book is set in Mendochino California, the northern coastal town where Tallent grew up. The winswept coasts, cliffs and forrests are described in detail and Turtle knows every inch of her Daddy’s land and beyond as she goes for long walks for days to escape despite what she knows is waiting for her when she gets home. She knows how to look after herself when she needs to, and when she meets up with two teenage boys lost in the woods, her skills come to the fore. Meeting them also provides a turning point for Turtle, offering her a new perspective, a chance to glimpse a life that might be different than she had always settled for and believed she had to endure.

There were moments in this book where I really cringed and felt uncomfortable and I admit to skipping a few pages that described a rather harrowing medical procedure in gory detail.

I was always deeply engaged in stories, novels, philosophy that talked about how to be a good person and how to live a just life in the face of injustice and tragedy,” Tallent said in an interview with Paste Magazine.

This book has certainly drawn mixed reviews, from ravings from Stephen King to reviews asserting this is yet another book written from a male perspective about the abuse of women for the titliation of the reader. I found it both compelling and disturbing in equal measure. Tallent certainly has an eye for detail and very descriptive prose and I did get the inner turmoil of Turtle, so attached to her father and so desperate for his love, but knowing, deep somewhere, it wasn’t how her life should be. I do recommend it and I felt it was worth reading. I was certainly gripped and found myself rooting for Turtle and wishing her a better life and relief from the horror that was her life. I would add a caveat that if you are disturbed by graphic abuse and cruelty, you may want to give it a miss however.

My Absolute Darling
by Gabriel Tallent
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
ISBN: 9780008185220