WASHINGTON — Eleanor Henderson, recognized author by The New York Times, greeted the crowd that had gathered to hear her speak at the Politics and Prose bookstore on Sunday – only days after her newest novel had been published.
Before she took questions pertaining to her book, writing process, and personal life, she read the first chapter aloud of her recently-published novel, “The Twelve-Mile Straight.”
In just the opening chapter, not only is a field hand is accused of raping the daughter of a white sharecropper, he is then mobbed, lynched, and dragged behind a truck down a long road popularly known in the town as the ‘Twelve-Mile Straight’ (hence the title of the book).
After this event that left a man dead and a family broken, people living on the farm were left with the everything that the aftermath entailed.
The story of Henderson’s second novel follows Elma Jesup who is engaged to a white man – the grandson of the man who owns the cotton land that the Jesup’s family works on. Jesup became pregnant by her fiance and later gave birth to twins – one black and one white. They become a sensation and were nicknamed the Gemini twins by the press.
This mystery, two twins of different races, is thanks to the peculiar medical phenomenon known as “heteropaternal superfecundation.” Beyond the intriguing science of the seemingly impossible birth, Henderson saw rich narrative possibilities in the South at the time.
“It felt very important for me to tell a story that had a rich cast of characters,” Henderson said. “It was clear that the cast of the time had to be represented, but the technical craft question was ‘can I go inside and why would I want to evaluate a character through her point of view?’”
Henderson’s novel tackles issues of race, social division, and financial struggle in Cotton County, Georgia in the 1930s. Questions were raised as to why a white woman from Florida felt the urge to write about something so far from her direct experience.
“My father was born in Georgia in 1932, so I spent a good amount of time seeing family,” Henderson said. “Much of the material from the book was from stories I heard growing up, visits to the land family farmed. They were share croppers and had 200 acres of cotton plants, corn and tobacco so the landscape is inspired by that Georgia. The stories derive from imagination and research.”
“The Twelve-Mile Straight” has been deemed ‘timely’ by many critics in regard to the current political environment in the United States.
Most of Henderson’s fans were made from her debut novel Ten Thousand Saints, which was named one of the ‘10 Best Books of 2011’ by The New York Times and a finalist for the Award for First Fiction from The Los Angeles Times.
“In both books [it] was really terrifying for me [to] say: ‘Who am I to tell this story?’” said Henderson. “That can be really frightening but a necessary question for any fiction writer, so my fear of getting those worlds wrong prompted me to keep diving deeper into research and doing my best to create a place that would be recognizable to people who lived there.”
Henderson had just published “The Twelve-Mile Straight” after six years of trying to finish writing it- a feat considering that her first novel took her nine years.
“My high school English teacher said ‘it’s done when it’s due,’” Henderson said. “Luckily I had a deadline waiting for me or we wouldn’t be here.”