Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta
Reviewed by Marion D. Aldridge
Before, during, and after a recent trip to Mississippi for a writers’ retreat, I read lots of Mississippi authors, from William Faulkner to Eudora Welty to John Grisham. But the gem I discovered was Dispatches from Pluto, winner of the Pat Conroy Southern Book Prize, and a New York Times bestseller. Richard Grant, an Englishman, is the author.
Grant is a travel writer who took a deep dive into Mississippi, bought a house there, married there, and made a life there. You can’t get much more immersed in a culture.
Locals often can’t see the forest for the trees. What we think is noteworthy is not interesting at all to outsiders. The everyday scenery that bores us is remarkable to a stranger. The language we know deep in our bones is charming to a newcomer. Grant moves into the world of the Deep South and tells our stores better than we can. He notices the strange bonds between the races that dominate our world and, without judgment, helps us understand ourselves better.
He writes of the poverty in the Mississippi Delta (not so different from the South Carolina low country): “Poor children hear thirty million fewer words than rich children in the first four years of their life.”
Grant observes what I’ve known for decades: “People vote against their own best interests, because they’re culturally so conservative.” Grant, to his credit, is unwilling to use the term “racist” too quickly. He quotes one woman, “Compartmentalize, compartmentalize, and then compartmentalize some more. If someone tells you that the Muslims are plotting to destroy America, or Obama is the Antichrist, you just seal that away in its own separate compartment, and carry on till you find their good side. There’s no sense in arguing with them.” Grant discovered that’s a necessary survival tactic in small communities of a few hundred or a few thousand people, where relationships with all members of the community are required. Nobody has the luxury of gated communities or ghettoes. All relationships are symbiotic and necessary.
He discusses not only the economics and politics of the Delta, but also the religion, the music, prisons, sports and education. He is as perplexed as everyone else that, during the Jim Crowe years, “Whites wouldn’t drink from the same water fountain as colored, but they were happy for their babies to have a black wet nurse.”
Grant has entered our world. He wrote he was “drowning in the deep end of the Deep South.” He did as fine a job of explaining us as anyone I’ve read.