Fiction: A Novelist Dissects the Claustrophobic Evil of Jim Crow

Cotton County is full of the sort of folks we might expect from a novel set in the rural South. Freddie’s wealthy grandfather George Wilson is a (barely) gentler version of Calvin Candie, the brown-toothed, debauched plantation owner from “Django Unchained.”

He gives Juke free run of his farm because the real profits come from Juke’s famous bootlegged gin, made from a still in Wilson’s woods. There’s the corrupt Sheriff Cleave, whom Wilson bribes with hooch. And a town drunk named Wolfie who periodically ends up in jail to dry out and play cards with the sheriff and deputy.

Henderson offsets these slightly stock characters by paying truth to the schizophrenia of Jim Crow, an evil complicated by the terrifying proximity of oppressed to oppressor. Her observations of this dynamic are powerful: “Nan saw that the things she’d thought made them more the same than anyone else were but provisional, and that Elma had more in common with a rich white girl from Buffalo than she had with Nan, who had lived in her house with all those ugly secrets in her mouth.” The girls’ lives are further circumscribed by the violence of the men around them. As Henderson writes: “Men would shed each other’s blood, and it was a woman’s job to slip out from under it, to step out of the way.”

Empathy for its troubled cast is one of the novel’s great strengths; at its most insightful and compassionate, the sentences sing. Here, Genus first encounters Nan and is reminded powerfully of the sister he hasn’t seen in many years: “He watched the black bird of Nan’s hat skimming across the field. He had to bend over and catch his breath, from the heat and the burning in his gut and the sight of his sister standing silent under the sun.”

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But Henderson’s empathy isn’t always adequate to the job of parsing her characters’ experience. As we learn, Nan’s mother, Ketty, cut out her child’s tongue with a scalpel when Nan was a baby. Before Nan’s birth, Ketty is involved in two extramarital relationships with white men, neither of which is entirely consensual. When she becomes pregnant, Ketty spirals into depression. Years later she is afflicted with the tongue cancer that runs in the family, the illness from which, we are told early in the novel, she hoped to save Nan by cutting out her tongue. Yet Nan’s mutilation and Ketty’s violent despair never quite ring true. In the end I had to wonder why the only living black woman in this novel is rendered doubly powerless by being unable to speak.

Nan is mute and Genus is dead. His death is significant, but neither narratively nor emotionally consequential enough in this context. Late in the book Elma fully acknowledges the seriousness of his death, but even then her grief is tied to worries about Juke’s legal troubles because of his involvement in the murder. Of the Twelve-Mile Straight, the stretch of roadway where Genus is killed, we are told that “the twins would no longer be young when the county renamed it Genus Jackson Road.”

What’s at issue here isn’t just the fact of Genus’s death, which is tragic enough, but rather the fact that he is lynched, too potent a symbol of racial terrorism in the South to evoke without the proper gravitas. I don’t mean to imply that the subject is untouchable, but it is the case that we have become so accustomed to black death that it is often used too casually.

Part of the problem here may be the novel’s desire to correct the past, in a sense. After Freddie Wilson lynches Genus, he goes on the run for fear of punishment. One doubts that in 1930s rural Georgia the white grandson of the most powerful man in town would be so terrified of serious legal repercussion that he’d go on the lam for six months. Well intentioned though it may be, that sort of corrective gesture makes our long and difficult racial past a lot easier for contemporary readers to digest. It shouldn’t be; white people are still murdering black folks and nobody seems to be running from their crimes.

Beyond these larger social implications, there is the simpler matter of compromised plausibility and the danger of narrative convenience. Freddie’s flight from Cotton County and subsequent return is just such a convenience. In another example, Nan, her son and her father (returned after years of self-imposed exile) settle on the farm they sharecropped – given to them in deed by George Wilson in a bout of self-recrimination. In yet another example, Oliver, the class-conscious town doctor’s son, writes love letters to Elma after having seen her only once: “It occurred to Elma that the letters might be just that. That he was asking her what their life together might look like.” The letters, and the bequeathing of the farm, are lovely happenings. They make us feel better, but I don’t quite believe them.

“The Twelve-Mile Straight” is well worth reading. It’s a page turner, a novel to settle into. But good intentions can’t replace its responsibility to the complexities of its subject matter. Heart-wrenching though it may be, diving into certain waters requires reckoning with the creatures in those depths.

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