Books | January 2016
in the Delta
Richard Grant explores the magnetism of the Magnolia State in Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta
Story by Shana Raley-Lusk
“I was living in New York City when I decided to buy an old plantation house in the Mississippi Delta.” So begins the spontaneous, if not downright impulsive, adventure of Richard Grant into the heart of the South, a land both mysterious and yet somehow alluring to him. The hatching of his plan was truly as simple and optimistic as the rattling off of that one line, but the lessons and encounters ahead of him would be both extraordinary and unforgettable. Located three miles from any neighbors and twenty-five miles from a grocery store, the house itself was far from the lap of luxury but somehow its remoteness beckoned to the self-described “misfit Englishman.” Though the book’s beaming discoveries are many as the pages turn by, I will admit I bristled a bit (even if unintentionally) when I read Grant’s obligatory acknowledgement of the Mississippi stereotypes he faced when he announced his decision to inhabit the American South. He writes, “…no state is more synonymous in the rest of the country with racism, ignorance, and cultural backwardness.” This line stings as do the subsequent few which record some of the reactions of Grant’s contemporaries, but these things do have resonating power because they make this singular point: there are a lot of assumptions out there about the South. Founded or unfounded, these things exist and the remarkable thing about Grant’s journey is that it uncovers (or at least touches on) the truths of our region’s complicated dynamics. And as he discovers along his path in Holmes County, there is plenty of good shining through underneath all those nasty assumptions.
Yearning for exploration and thirsty to soak in the beauty that the hidden gem of the Mississippi Delta undoubtedly holds, Grant gets a lot of disconcerting advice sprinkled with a fair share of unbecoming state statistics as he works to make the move happen for himself and his hesitant girlfriend. Though they are embarking on the unknown, the transition from their expensive and cramped New York lifestyle is a welcome change for both. The appeal of nature and seclusion win out, and the couple takes the plunge into Pluto.
Referencing the music that the state is known for and the legendary works of William Faulkner, Grant acknowledges an early fascination with enigmatic Mississippi. He views the Delta as a frontier to be explored and revealed. His natural curiosity and untarnished desire to know this exceptional place is quite refreshing. As the tale unwinds, the couple learns to live off the land and keep out varmints all the while encountering a very captivating cast of characters from farmers to eccentric millionaires. A famous face even makes a cameo within the book’s pages.
“Mariah and I had been in the Delta for nearly a year, and we still didn’t feel like we understood the place well,” Grant writes toward the end of the book. “It was a feudal relic…It was a foretaste of a dystopian social future, when machines free capital from the burdens of labor,” he continues. But he admits with all of its intertwined complexities, Mississippi never left them feeling bored or like they had seen or learned all that it held for them. Perhaps more importantly, it had broadened their minds. This place that everyone had claimed was narrow-minded and ignorant had broadened the minds and lifted the judgment of these two worldly newcomers. For me, this is the pearl of wisdom down deep in the layers of Grant’s writing. It is the irony that this book is meant to project for the world.
With a writing style is magnetic, Grant has the noteworthy ability to juxtapose the beauty and allure of the Delta landscape with its undeniable deterioration. Not one for smoothing over the rough places, Grant manages to present the magnificence of Mississippi without sweeping anything under the rug. In the style of a true Southerner, Grant presents this exceptional place with grace and honor while keeping a firm grip on the realities and complexities of the Southern story. In the end, Grant concludes, there is no denying that Mississippi may very well be the best-kept secret in the country. But this is a truth that us Southerners have always known.