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In 'The Twelve-Mile Straight,' Characters Are Symbols First, People Second

In the fictional county of Cotton, Georgia, a pair of twins is born, one white and one black. "They looked like a pair of baby chicks ... Only if you looked closely — and people did — could you see that the girl is pink as a piglet, and the boy was brown." In the summer of 1930, in segregated Georgia, they become a sensation, nicknamed the Gemini twins by the press for Castor and Pollux, the twin sons of Leda by different fathers.

Their mother, Elma Jesup, is white, as is Freddie Wilson, her fiance. Elma's father Juke accuses the black farmhand Genus Jackson of raping her; that night, Genus is lynched. But as the reader will guess early on, the black baby was not Elma's and Genus's, but the product of a different attack: the rape of a young black servant named Nan by Juke himself.

The Twelve-Mile Straight can feel like a slog, nearly 600 pages of human suffering told in the third person, through the lenses of various members of the community.

After the gruesome opening, the narrative energy dissipates. Eleanor Henderson's The Twelve-Mile Straight can feel like a slog, nearly 600 pages of human suffering told in the third person, through the lenses of various members of the community. It is clotted with too many similar stories and indistinguishable voices: Done with more care, this labyrinthine quality could drive home the point that discrete groups work interdependently to maintain the status quo and protect the powerful, that each member of a community plays a role in perpetuating racism. But as it is, The Twelve-Mile Straight reads like a cavalcade of indistinguishable brutality without sufficient nuance.

Henderson is a capable writer when a certain faux-folksiness doesn't hinder her voice. She evokes place beautifully: "The fog was so thick you could cut it with a knife and spread it on your toast," or, "On windy autumn nights, pecans blasted the roof like rain." And the story's moment in history, when medicine and technology are making frightening new advances, is also painted well, as when she imagines Nan and her baby seeing a refrigerator for the first time: "The two of them stood thrilling in the draft for a moment, staring into the foggy eye of the Frigidaire ... In a wire basket hanging from a shelf, hen eggs, a dozen at least, loose and cold, like river stones."

With The Twelve-Mile Straight, Henderson is clearly attempting to illuminate the tangle of blood, guilt, violence and race in the deep South when slavery was over, but not past. Yet these were not solely systems, but people, and Henderson's character development proves regrettably paltry. Personality is found mostly in a twangy artificial folksiness shared among all of the characters, and cliched male and female traits ("His weakness was for women, and the only thing that made it worse was liquor," and so on).

Each character does possess a minutely detailed backstory, though these fail to imbue them with life as individuals. When they do evince feelings, they register largely as variations on anger and lust, and the book's plot seesaws between the results of those two instincts. Other feelings, or more nuanced versions of those feelings, are scarce. For Henderson's characters, love is always at first sight, followed quickly by bloodshed.

Genus in particular feels like a stereotype: a black man who stars in either sexual fantasies or sexual jealousies, his body either laboring on white people's land or acting as a screen for white people's imaginations. Henderson turns the readers into Elma, crouching at the creek to watch him bathe ("She had never seen a man the way the lord intended.") Though no doubt Henderson means to critique this cliche of dangerous black male hypervirility (and this book goes on and on about his penis — sorry, "manhood"), she herself gives Genus that same role, and lingers on his body with that same gaze, in order to propel her narrative forward.

Nan's body, too, acts as a canvas. Her mother excised her tongue to save her from the mouth cancer that killed her own mother and grandmother, so in Nan, we find the familiar classical archetype of the raped girl with her tongue cut out. She is literally voiceless, forced to bear the son of her rapist and then pretend it isn't hers. Though Henderson means this as a metaphor for the political and sexual subjugation of black women, she gives Nan little inner life, which leaves her in the same role in the book as in the Jesup house: a voiceless workhorse. She lacks ideas, character traits, habits, and flaws. If Nan is to have her tongue cut out, a vivid inner life is not just important but morally necessary.

Castor and Pollux, the original Gemini twins, were fathered by a human and a god. One child was mortal, and the other immortal. The brothers loved each other so much that when Castor died, Pollux asked his father Zeus if he could split his immortality with his twin, and so together they lived half in Hades, half on Olympus. It's a parable, of course, about advantage. Eleanor Henderson's The Twelve-Mile Straight uses her gemini, too, to reflect on privilege and nature. But history and myth are not the same, and for us to read victims of injustice as symbols, they must be people, first of all.

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Annalisa Quinn is a contributing writer, reporter, and literary critic for NPR. She created NPR's Book News column and covers literature and culture for NPR.