My rating: 4 of 5 stars
My wife and I lived for a couple years in Oxford, Mississippi, and there was much that I, having been raised in the Midwest, did not understand. This was more than the accent, though the first time I had to get a vehicle inspection sticker I could only stare in incomprehension at the man behind the counter when he asked if I had “tents on my windows.” My confusion must have been obvious, because he repeated it with more insistence. When that didn’t work, he asked if I had windows that were “tented.” If I did, he informed me, we’d have to do a “tent test.”
I had no idea what he was talking about. This was, after all, Mississippi, so I assumed maybe a tent was some kind of slang for broken windows that had been repaired with plastic. It wasn’t until he spelled it out, obviously running out of patience for this clueless Yankee, “TENT, T-I-N-T,” that the lightbulb came on.
I spent most of my time during that period of our lives in the physics department at Ole Miss, so interactions like this didn’t take place very often. My wife, however, taught in the county high school. At our first high school football game, I asked why her incredibly polite and cheerful students were constantly greeting her with the strange call “Muh-Kay!” She explained this was “Miss Case.” (She had spent her high school years in Texas, so she had a jump with me on the accent.)
But Oxford was great. The town was beautiful, the people were lovely, and you could get pimento cheese or fried hotdog sandwiches at the same place you fueled your car. The weather was wonderful, and in the summer there was air conditioning.
In Oxford, we heard stories about a strange place called the Delta, and one day I convinced my friend Chet, who was also the pastor of the tiny Nazarene church we attended, to take a road trip with me through a small portion of it. We must have stuck out like sore, idiotic thumbs: two skinny white men in my blue ’99 Firebird gawking, photographing, and trying to make small-talk with locals in the tiny towns we passed through. But images of that day trip stay with me: especially the tiny town of Friar’s Point on the Mississippi River, a place like a closet that you backed into with nowhere to go; the ruins of St. Cecilia’s Catholic church, empty and decaying; the Seventh Day Adventist we chatted with in the parking lot of a closed historical museum. We drove over the river to Helena, and finished with a gander at the spillway of the Sardis Dam, the largest earthen dam in the world. (Chet has stayed, learning the story of the Mississippi civil rights movement and telling its narrative.)
I thought of that trip reading Richard Grant’s account of his time in the Delta, Dispatches from Pluto. The work is a loose chronological narrative of how he fell in love with an old plantation home in the tiny hamlet of Pluto in the middle of the Delta and convinced his girlfriend to uproot from New York City and start a new life there. To him, it was as though he had discovered a new, foreign country called Mississippi and then an even stranger hidden kingdom within Mississippi called the Delta. (For confused Midwesterners: the Mississippi Delta is not the delta of the Mississippi River. It’s the confluence of the Yazoo River where it runs into the Mississippi, a low, swampy and incredibly fertile land only drained for farming after the Civil War. It makes up the northwest corner of the state, stretching along the western side of the state to Vicksburg.)
Dispatches from Pluto is Grant’s exploration of the culture, history, twisted and bizarre politics, and complex race relations of this isolated portion of our country’s poorest state. Race is a big theme in the book, with Grant (originally from London) continually frustrated and ultimately bemused in his attempts to categorize the relations between blacks and whites in the Delta in any meaningful way through the relationships he builds with his neighbors.
The book is not a travelogue, and Grant is at times frustratingly vague on the actual geography of the Delta. Nor is it a straightforward history or any sort of systematic survey of the social trends or economy of the region. And that’s fine, as the book doesn’t attempt to be this, but a section on “suggested reading” or at least some leads given in the narrative of what Grant’s reading in his attempt to understand his adopted home would have helped an interested reader know where to go to learn more.
Dispatches is instead a colorful, rambling account that makes this strange but charmingly enigmatic backwater come to life through Grant’s own discoveries. More than an exploration of a place you may never have heard of before (with a history and certain traits that are indeed troubling and often horrifying), it’s more importantly a testimony to understanding, hospitality, and neighborliness that transcends regionality and (in some cases) even race. To know a place, Grant seems to be saying, you have to know its people. And to know the people, you need to live beside them. Doing this with an openness and a genuine desire to learn and then writing about what it teaches him is where Grant succeeds admirably.