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

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Persons Unknown by Susie Steiner

I’m an avid reader of thrillers. I read both ‘stand-alone’ novels but also the increasingly popular format of a primary character that features in a series of books.

I am particularly keen – once I have found a character I can empathise with – to read them all, but the main proviso has to be that I read them in the correct order! So, it was with some trepidation that I read “Persons Unknown” as it quickly became apparent that I wasn’t starting off with a new series – Missing, Presumed had already been published featuring the main character Manon Bradshaw.

Most of the time though, even if you start out of sequence it doesn’t really matter as authors have a tendency to hark back to previous cases or anecdotal information that brings you up-to-date on past relationships and any prior connections through historical cases.

CoverI had just started the first chapter when serendipity arrived in the guise of a library borrower wanting a reserve placed on the same book. The customer started telling me what a great book the first one had been and how she was looking forward to receiving/reading this next one. Well, you can’t get a higher recommendation than that! Actually, you can, as when I went to check out the first book Missing, Presumed I found every copy was out on loan!

Persons Unknown has a contemporary UK setting with several well-defined characters investigating a murder in Cambridgeshire which in turn leads back to the ‘wheeling and dealing’, bribery and corruption of high finance in London with its attendant pimps, high-class prostitutes and assorted recreational drugs adding inducements to major players in these corrupt dealings.

As if all of the above were not intricately woven into the complicated plot, Susie Steiner also manages to integrate a number of social issues via her main protagonist, Manon, a middle-aged woman who has adopted a pre-teen black kid but still wants to experience motherhood first-hand and meet, if not Mr Right, then at least Mr ‘I’m happy to be with you whatever the circumstances’.

Manon’s professional and personal life implode when both her adopted son, Fly and her sister, Ellie, are found to have known the murder victim and become police suspects themselves.

This is very much a character-driven novel – Manon’s personal and professional problems, hopes and fears resonate with the reader and you want her to succeed — not only in solving the case but also salvaging her precarious relationship with Fly, who is experiencing racial and institutional injustices and will no doubt be defined by these hugely negative experiences.

After such a riveting read I’m now going to go back to when it all began a few years earlier…

Persons Unknown
by Susie Steiner
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
ISBN: 978-0-00-812334-5

Race Relations Day: Welcoming Diversity

Race Relations Day – 21 March 2016

New Zealand is one of the most ethnically diverse nations on earth. It is also one of the most peaceful.  Our biggest challenge is how we choose to live our lives and what kind of country we let New Zealand become. This Race Relations Day we are asking all Kiwis to welcome and get to know the people in your community. What you do makes all the difference.

 – Human Rights Commission

The theme for Race Relations Day 2016 is “Welcoming Diversity”.

And what a fun time we’ve had celebrating diversity lately in Christchurch ! There’s been the Night Noodle Market, the Chinese Lantern Festival (27 & 28 February), Holi Day (5 March), Canterbury Japan Day (6 March),  Culture Galore (12 March) and Canterbury Polyfest 2016 – phew !

In New Zealand we are lucky to be able to enjoy and celebrate our diversity, but this is not so in many other parts of the world.  In 1966 the date of March 21 was proclaimed by the General Assembly of the United Nations to be The International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the reason this date was chosen is because this was the date of the Sharpeville massacre.

Sharpeville is in South Africa, and on 21 March 1960 police opened fire on a crowd of about 20,000 people who were protesting against the apartheid “pass laws”.  Some 69 people were killed, including children, while around 180 were injured. Apartheid in the Rainbow Nation has since been dismantled, but the fight against racial prejudice and discrimination continues around the world.

Further reading

 As Good as Anybody Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Joshua Heschel's Amazing March Toward Freedom  Human Rights and Human Wrongs A Life Confronting Racism  Are We There Yet? The Future of the Treaty of Waitangi The Name of the Game

Young Adult fiction and race relations

Lately my reading has seemed depressingly apropos, given the recent news from Baltimore, Ferguson and Charleston on PressDisplay. To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960, and Harper Lee’s second novel, Go Set a Watchman, is being published next month, yet for some not a lot has changed during that time. Don’t believe me? Try the Young Adult books below, or have a look at my more extensive list on Bibliocommons.

How it Went Down, Kekla Magoon

The facts are these: Tariq Johnson, African American, was shot dead by white Jack Franklin, who then fled the scene. Everything else is in dispute. Told through the thoughts of eyewitnesses, family members, and a senatorial candidate cashing in on the publicity, How it Went Down details the struggles of a community trying to come to terms with and understand how, exactly, it went down.

This Side of Home, Renee Watson

As their historically ‘bad’ neighbourhood becomes trendy and increasingly filled with white families, twins Maya and Nikki find themselves growing apart. Maya is filled with indignation at the white businesses pushing poorer African American families out of their homes through increasing rents, whereas Nikki is happy that she can get good coffee from down the street. As they finish their last year of high school, Maya deals with her best friend moving across town, the possibility that she will go to college on her own, and a potential relationship with the white boy across the street.

Lies We Tell Ourselves, Robin Talley

Despite being set in 1959, the issues raised in Lies We Tell Ourselves are clearly not limited to that era. Set in a newly integrated school in Virginia, students are forced to work together regardless of race. When Sarah (African American) and Linda (white, integration opponent’s daughter) are assigned each other as partners on a school project, they both discover that some truths are not universal.

Cover of The Game of Love and DeathThe Game of Love and Death, Martha Brockenbrough

Love and Death select their players for their latest round of the Game. Love’s player, Henry: white, musical, orphaned but taken in by a friend’s wealthy family. Death’s player, Flora: African American, musical, orphaned and raised by her poor grandmother, and desperate to be a pilot. Set in Seattle during the Great Depression. If you like reading about unhappy people who play jazz, then this book is for you.

The sacrifice

Cover of The sacrifice

Disturbing.

Troubling.

Uneasy.

These words stayed with me as I read The Sacrifice. This is a sharp and pointy book. It caught my attention. I was curious from the beginning as the first words sent shivers down my spine.

Seen my girl? My baby? 

She came like a procession of voices though she was but a singular voice. She came along Camden Avenue in the Red Rock neighborhood of inner-city Pascayne, twelve tight compressed blocks between the New Jersey Turnpike and the Passaic River. In the sinister shadow of the high looming Pitcairn Memorial Bridge she came. Like an Old Testament mother she came seeking her lost child.

Who is the sacrifice in this story and what is being sacrificed? Is it Ednetta Frye the despairing mother seeking justice for her “young for her age, and trustin” daughter? Is it Sybilla Frye, the daughter, beaten and left to die in the derelict cellar of a disused building? Or Ignes Iglesias, the Hispanic (not black enough) woman cop sent to interview Sybilla at the hospital? Can it be Jerold Zahn, the young white police officer who is accused of raping Sybilla? Or Anis Schutt, the stepfather, who has a violent and dangerous past? What about the influential Mudrick brothers who stir up racial hatred after the attack? What are the consequences of their actions?

Joyce Carol Oates sets her narrative in the fictional town of Pascayne where skin colour, poverty, crime, and violence creates victims. This is a story full of powerful and convincing voices. The multiple perspectives establish empathy and sorrow for the characters and challenge perceptions along the way. Racial tension exudes from every page creating an edgy and evocative read.

Even though The Sacrifice is a work of fiction it is based on fact. I chose not to read about the actual case leaving this sharp point for later. I’m glad I did. The story became a national sensation and divided a country. This book will divide readers.