Sunday, October 23, 2016

Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta, by Richard Grant

This 2015 account of a British journalist, Richard Grant, who buys a plantation house on the Mississippi Delta and moves there with his girlfriend from New York, raises interesting questions about understanding of place. Basically, if you weren't born and raised in a place, can you ever come to know it? Can you in your late 40s move to a place, spend a year there, and then write about it in a convincing way? Conversely, how well can you know a place even if you've lived there your entire life? There are legitimate arguments for both perspectives. I enjoyed this book. It's well-written. It has a familiar, chatty prose style. Although the author seems to believe that he's going to an isolated and exotic place that he knows nothing about-- he's honest about that--he goes without apparent preconceptions or biases. (My friend Hubert McAlexander says he has an “innocent eye”). In ways it might be better to go to a place with biases than without them. You need a baseline standard of measurement. Grant does his best to restore the old plantation house, stop leaks, deal with water moccasins (he shoots them), clear the yard for a garden, learn about the racial mores of the area, learn about its history, and socialize with the neighbors. He and his girlfriend learn to hunt and to dress a deer. It was tempting to find a Green Acres theme in this book—the uptown city boy who goes to live in the country and gets schooled in country ways. To be fair, Grant did not push that theme.

A gubernatorial candidate shows up in the narrative, the author plays golf with Morgan Freeman, he visits an aging blues singer who lives nearby. When it was all over, I found myself skeptical. This was not a matter of believing that somebody who's not from the South can't understand it. I don't believe that any more than I believe someone who's lived only in the South can understand it very well either. It's just that I felt an absence of authenticity. The author seemed to enjoy the Delta area and the people he met. He enjoyed telling stories about crazy characters from surrounding towns or from Jackson. He understood Southern history--he knew about the past of the region where he was living. He gives persuasive explanations for why local school systems (which are mainly for African-Americans because whites send their children to private schools) are in dire need of improvement. He notes candidly that the reasons for the poor state of public schools in the Delta lie on both sides of the racial divide, and with local and state government. He gives a chilling description of a visit to the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman. But in the end I didn't feel I'd learned much other than about this journalist’s willingness to open himself up to new experiences.

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