Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Dispatches from Pluto by Richard Grant - Book Review




Dispatches from Pluto (Simon & Schuster, 2015, 320 pages, $16.00/11.99) is simply the best book on race in America I've ever read. Things we say and don't say, relationships we have and don't have, long-held misunderstandings and new insights grown from distance and proximity. By moving from his comfortable liberalism in New York to the poorest town in the poorest region, in the poorest and blackest state in America, Richard Grant learns, explains, and helps bridge gaps that persist in every level of society and region of the country. By doing so in an engaging, often humorous, and always involved, deeply compassionate memoir from the depths of the Mississippi Delta, Grant has provided an invaluable service presented within the confines of a highly readable and ultimately important book.

Grant's introduction to Mississippi had been through his writing in the 1990's about aging Delta Blues musicians. At a book party in William Faulkner's home town of Oxford, Mississippi, he met famed cookbook writer Martha Foose at a book reading and was invited to visit her Mississippi, the Mississippi Delta. Eventually, he decides to move to the small town of Pluto, MS, and buy a former plantation mansion from Foose's father, a local lawyer. Soon, he moves to Pluto with his partner Mariah, where they begin to learn to live in the South. Early in his stay, Foose tells Grant “There's a secret to living here....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. Folks around here are stubborn as they come.” By this, she means that unless people are capable of taking beliefs, attitudes, and behavior they disapprove or even that horrifies them and putting them away, they never can discover the true charm, depth, complexity, wisdom and value of people and life in the South.

Grant and Mariah purchase the plantation house and move into it. They encounter snakes, alligators, armadillos, and insects without count as they live in their new home and learn to cope with its idiosyncrasies. They meet people from all walks of life while living in an area that once was rich in farming and plantations, but has now become increasingly poor as factory farms have come to dominate. They observe and become part of the rich web of relationships that characterize the region such as families where children are still raised, nurtured, suckled by the descendants of those their own ancestors once owned. Grant visits blues bars where marijuana and crack cocaine are openly consumed and distributed and plays golf with the white sons of the former plantation society as well as black actor Morgan Freeman. We hear about and meet an angry lawyer and a crazy doctor locked in a battle of wills and politics. We learn about the hunting and gun culture in ways that defy the stereotypes suggested by both NRA propagandists and gun-control advocates. We visit black churches at times of grief and joy. We attend marriages and funerals. We visit in the homes of the poor and downtrodden as well as the rich and privileged while we learn of the intricate relationships between and amongst these families. Along the way we learn that race and racism as both more and less pervasive than an outsider can know or understand. And all this is presented in narrative form with gentle humor, compassionate insight, deep understanding gained more through experience than sociology.

Richard Grant

Richard Grant is a freelance British travel writer based in Mississippi. He was born in Malaysia, lived in Kuwait as a boy and then moved to London. He went to school in Hammersmith and received a history degree from University College, London, After graduation he worked as a security guard, a janitor, a house painter and a club DJ before moving to America where he lived a nomadic life in the American West eventually settling in Tucson, Arizona, as a base from which to travel. He supported himself by writing articles for Men's Journal,Esquire and Details, among others. Grant and now wife, Mariah, moved to New York City briefly, before relocation to Pluto, Mississippi. (Wikipedia Profile)
During the past fifteen or so years, my wife, Irene, and I have spent significant portions of our life living in various parts of the South. We've toured, lived for several months at a time, and nearly settled in several different places. Along the way we discovered bluegrass music and have been both captured and embraced by much of the warmth, generosity of spirit, and friendliness that Grant describes. We, too, have found the need to compartmentalize those elements of southern culture with which we have deep disagreements in order to recognize and treasure the components making the region and its people a treasured part of our experience. Needless to say, they, too, have been able to put aside their stereotypes and misunderstandings of northern (Yankee) attitudes that often conflict with their own. By coming better to understand this region's strengths and peculiarities, our lives have been enriched and expanded beyond measure. Reading Richard Grant's Dispatches from Pluto has succeeded in giving this experience greater depth and nuance to my own experience. Who could ask for more from a book?

Dispatches from Pluto by Richard Grant (Simon & Schuster, 2015, 320 pages, $16.00/11.99) with gentle good humor and deep insight portrays a year in the life of a young couple coming to terms with life's realities in the deepest place in the deep South, the Mississippi Delta region, laying along the Mississippi river from Tupelo to Vickeburg. This memoir provides the opportunity, for those willing to open their eyes and hearts, to understand the strengths and enduring problems of life in one of most impoverished and damaged parts of the United States, which, nevertheless, represents some of the most engaging elements of our life in America. Dispatches from Pluto is must reading in order to deepen understanding of race relations, their sources and outcomes, in this small corner of a much bigger picture. I read Dispatches from Pluto as an electronic galley provided to me by the publisher through Edelweiss. I read it on my Kindle app.