The births of two babies and the consequent lynching of a black man launch Henderson’s (Ten Thousand Saints, 2011) grim investigation into the fractures of race, class, and family in rural Georgia.
Pink little Winnafred and brown Wilson are born in the summer of 1930, allegedly the twin offspring of 18-year-old Elma Jesup, whose father, Juke, accuses field hand Genus Jackson of raping her. Elma reluctantly confirms this, and her fiance, Freddie Wilson, helps Juke string up Genus and then skips town. Wealthy George Wilson is furious with Juke for letting his grandson take the blame—not that anyone wants to bring the lynchers to justice—and is suspicious about these “Gemini twins.” Indeed, we hear very soon that Wilson was fathered by Juke with Nan, the Jesups’ 14-year-old African-American servant. Juke forces the two girls into this absurd deception for reasons that are somewhat obscure until Henderson's tangled saga has unreeled a good deal farther into the year 1931 and back into a past that includes abuse and violence galore. The details are baroque but appropriate to the epically unjust society scathingly depicted. The reign of terror under which African-Americans live takes perhaps its most appalling form in the stories of Nan and her mother, both forced into long-term sexual subjugation by white men, but Elma and the white girls who work at George Wilson’s cotton mill are hardly better off. Juke, in Henderson’s most multifaceted and terrifying portrait, clings to the prerogatives of race and gender to hide from himself the fact that he’s just trash in the eyes of men like George Wilson, who hold the real power in the South. Despite Henderson’s evident compassion for her characters, she gives them hardly a moment of grace from the dark opening to the brutal denouement, which makes the tentatively hopeful epilogue somewhat difficult to credit.
Strong medicine, not always easy to swallow, but readers who like a challenge will relish this gifted writer’s ambition and grit.