There aren’t many people around today who lived through the Great Depression, which started with the stock market crash in 1929. The Depression left attitudes and ways of thinking in the generation before mine. In particular, even those with adequate incomes, and more, were reluctant to spend a dollar with the coming of World War II. The after-effects in people’s attitudes were apparent in the old saw, “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”
“The Twelve-Mile Straight” begins in the early 1930s, is set in the small town of Florence in rural southern Georgia, and chronicles the lives of poor white people, even poorer blacks, and a few fortunate men such as George Wilson, the owner of the Florence cotton mill.
Wilson’s predilection for sparkling white suits and hats belie the heavy hand he holds over the community: he owns the mill, bought up most of the foreclosed farms in the area, and is not a benevolent renter. In addition, it’s common knowledge in the community that he has impregnated several of the young women who work in the mill.
The abrupt and shocking beginning of the story is the lynching of Genus Jackson, a young black man accused of raping and impregnating Elma Jesup, a young woman. When her pregnancy becomes apparent, her father Juke, enraged, incites the lynching, unaware and uncaring that the natural father is Freddie Wilson, grandson of George Wilson, who also was directly involved in the lynching.
Juke cuts the body down after it has been riddled by gunshots, and Freddie ties it to the back of his pickup truck and pulls it the length of the Twelve-Mile Straight, a road which begins its run “straight as a string,” from near the Jesup Farm, ending in Florence as Main Street. He unties the body in the street and disappears, apparently fearing he will be charged with murder. A brief vignette demonstrates the casual acceptance of this horror as it describes some of the mob comparing pieces of the dead man’s clothing they have taken. Those with bloodstains are the most valued.
A parallel story woven into the narrative is that of Nan, a black girl four years younger than Elma. They have been close friends since childhood, and this relationship became even closer when her mother Ketty, a midwife, died and her father left her to go North to find a better life.
Before Ketty dies, she grows preoccupied with the tongue cancer suffered by her grandmother, her mother, and eventually herself. She essentially becomes insane in her fear that Nan will suffer the same fate and cuts out Nan’s tongue, leaving her mute.
Nan will have a child at virtually the same time as Elma, the paternity of which is uncertain: Juke, whose wife has died and who frequently takes Elma into his bed, or Genus Jackson with whom she fell in love.
These are the primary threads of this somewhat complicated novel that is, at times brutal and violent, but also is compelling as the reader falls into its rhythm and becomes aware of the underlying dark threats throughout. The conflict between good and evil are always close at hand, and evil often prevails.
The novel is a good read, and I found myself spending even spare moments returning to it. One caution: there is liberal use of the “N” word, though not inconsistent with the story.
As I finished “The Twelve-Mile Straight” I found myself thinking, “How did these people cope with the poverty, cruelty and prejudice against both poor whites and the even poorer blacks and often come through their troubled lives with a sense of dignity?” I’m not at all sure that any of us would do as well.