Author taps family lore for tale of Depression-era South Georgia

Eleanor Henderson landed big in lit land when the New York Times named her debut novel, “Ten Thousand Saints,” one of the 10 best books of 2011.

“Saints” was set in the 1980s, mostly on New York City’s Lower East Side. Henderson received heaps of golden praise for in-depth research that enabled her to paint a specific time and place in vivid detail, and for creating terrific characters. Also for her beautifully nuanced writing and captivating storytelling.

Now the 38-year-old author has turned her powers to rural Georgia in the early 1930s. Her second novel, “The Twelve-Mile Straight,” soars in those very same ways.

Five years in the works, “The Twelve-Mile Straight,” is set in fictional Cotton County in south central Georgia. Henderson will discuss the hefty book (539 pages that fly by like our recent winds) Thursday night in Decatur.

She is “drawn to the stories of the people I love.” Her first novel was sprung from stories her husband knew of and shared with her. “The Twelve-Mile Straight” is inspired by her own family heritage.

Her father, William Henderson, now 85, was raised in Ben Hill County. The author always loved hearing about his boyhood as “Billy” on a 200-acre farm – corn, tobacco, peanuts, some cotton – west of the town of Fitzgerald, along a straight called Ten Mile Road.

In the new novel out this week, Juke Jesup is a white sharecropper a notch up from the standard definition, because he also hires workers and manages the Wilson farm for its offsite landowner. He’s still poor as dirt and would be eating hog hearts if he didn’t make liquor in a tucked-away cabin.

The story opens in 1930 with two interwoven dramatic events: the lynching of Juke’s field hand Genus Jackson, accused of raping Juke’s daughter Elma; and the birth of 18-year-old Elma’s “miraculous” twins – one light-skinned, one dark. Newspaper reporters come to see them to believe it: the “pink as a piglet” baby girl, Winnafred Jean, and the dark brown baby boy, Wilson John.

Henderson became fascinated by the concept of Greek mythology’s Gemini twins, who had the same mother but different fathers. While pregnant herself and watching a documentary on fetal development, she learned that it’s possible for twins to have two different fathers.

“I thought that could only happen in soap operas,” says the mother of two boys who also teaches fiction writing at Ithaca College in New York.

Henderson initially saw the childhoods of Winna and Wilson – “what their lives might be like back then” – as this novel’s main thread. “But then I became much more interested in how they came to be.” She began to build “a richer story in the Jim Crow sharecropping world, where a town could be very suspicious of that sort of thing.”

And she “began to think of that historical tragedy of a young black man accused of raping a white woman, and I began to research lynching.”

Elma is a central figure in the story – the body of Genus Jackson “swung in her nightmares.” Another is Elma’s housemate and constant companion Nan, a 14-year-old nanny and midwife who can make weird sounds but can’t speak words. When Nan was a baby, her mother cut out her tongue to avoid the family death threat, a cancer that ate at their tongues “like a weevil through a cotton boll.”

Henderson’s goal was always to tell a multifaceted story about Depression-era Georgia in the years of Prohibition. “It was important to me to imagine that world through a number of different perspectives, including poor whites, well-off whites, African-American servants and field hands, men and women, young and old.”

The author, raised in Florida, made a few research trips to Georgia, starting with a road trip with her dad, when she was eight months pregnant. They visited the farm of his childhood, where “the house once there is now just rubble.”

Her father has warm memories of his Georgia childhood, but you’re not in for peaches and cream on the rough-going Wilson farm. Likewise, the made-up places (the town of Florence and Cotton County) do not mirror the social structures of Fitzgerald or Ben Hill County.

It’s all a combination of research, observation, stories and imagination, Henderson says. When her dad read “The Twelve-Mile Straight” in manuscript form, he offered some helpful feedback. Tips such as, “Honey, you don’t pick peanuts, you take them out of the ground.”

Dealing with subjects ranging from injustice and race relations to deep, dark family secrets, “The Twelve-Mile Straight” is an absorbing epic of poor Georgia farm people and other folks they encounter in dicey, hardscrabble times. The elegant yet swift and crafty storytelling is spiked with so many surprises.

And oh-so many memorable characters, even those who only have bit roles. The character names are such fun – names like Mancie Neville, Willie Cousins, Drink Simmons, Mud Turner, Parthenia Wilson, Wolfie Brunswick, Q.L. Boothby, Dr. Oliver Rawls, Herman Flood …

But the name certain to be buzzed all around book-loving circles this fall is Eleanor Henderson.

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