Dispatches from Pluto

Forgive my absence from this space. I let the nastiness of the Internet and the world in general get to me. I stupidly forgot that the place I move around in here is quite nice. I also want to tell you about a book that I think you should consider reading. Dispatches from Pluto is Richard Grant’s account of his move from New York City to the Mississippi Delta. Grant is a naturalized US citizen and has traveled extensively around the world. After being reasonably comfortable in NYC, why the heck would he want to move to Mississippi?

Mississippi is famous for being on the bottom of the lists you don’t want to be on: highest crime, highest corruption, most obese people, highest number of teen pregnancies, most segregated schools, racism. On the positive side, Mississippi is the birthplace of blues and provides the world with the most farm-raised catfish. Neither of these two points is particularly convincing as an argument to move there. But Grant, his girlfriend, and their dog were tired of their tiny city apartment, and they fell in love with the area. I give them credit for having an open enough mind to move to a place that is about as different from NYC as you can imagine.

I found Grant’s stories about what awaited them in the Delta to be humorous, entertaining, eye-opening, and astutely observed. I learned that “camouflage” is a pattern for basically anything you could ever want. I was unsurprised by the fact that it took Grant 15 minutes to get a gun, but 3 weeks to get a driver’s license. I was shocked to hear that there’s still corporal punishment in some Delta schools. I cried when he described the dismal state of some schools and the success that one of them found when it agreed to take part in a business-sponsored program that brought a highly educated and motivated principal, money, and a reading-focused approach to learning. I chuckled when he described potluck lunches without worries about the latest fad diets. I could relate to his gratitude when he shot his first deer, knowing that the animal did not die in vain and would nourish him for many months. I found out that the infamous Mississippi State Penitentiary, also known as Parchman Farm, is the largest farm-to-table provider in the entire United States because of all the farmland the prison cultivates. It never occurred to me that the lack of supermarkets with fresh food in areas of extreme poverty and shrinking populations is one of the reasons for the extremely unhealthy diets in those areas.

 

Above all, I appreciated Grant’s observations about race relations in Mississippi. Yes, it is the account of only one person, and yes, as a white person, his experience in the Delta is necessarily different from a person with a different skin color. But Grant is very honest about describing his experience and his thoughts. He is open-minded, and he points out a few things that I think are easier to observe by someone who was not born in this country. He presents a number of different viewpoints on the subject of racism in the state, and some of them offered interesting aspects that I had not considered before reading this book.

I think the one thing to keep in mind is that it is easy enough to lecture when you are not confronted by a particular problem on a daily basis. (I say this because I have people around me lecturing who have never been beyond a 50-mile radius of where they were born. It’s curious to hear how they know all about everything and everyone.) It is also easy enough to insult and judge people you don’t know and whose circumstances you are not familiar with. As someone who has never been to Mississippi, I found this book to be a valuable insight into a place I know little about. It has helped me understand this place better, and I’m glad about it.

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12 comments

  1. I would think that Mississippi would really feel like Pluto compared to New York City.

    Anthony Bourdain did a good “Parts Unknown” about the Mississippi Delta.

    You’ve made me curious about this book!

  2. Oh this sounds interesting! My parents moved from Chicago to southern Alabama where we have family and it was a huge culture shock. There are lots of things that make me shake my head still. I will have to look for this at the library.

    • Chicago to southern Alabama… I have no doubt that move was a culture shock. I am still thinking about the fact that there are schools where teachers are allowed to hit a student. Here in the northeast, parents would sue the sh** out of the school district and the teacher. If you like audiobooks, then give this one a try. It was easy to listen to.

  3. This sounds like something I’d like, just for the fact that I don’t know a lot about Mississippi (except for how to spell it, which I’ve known since probably before I could spell anything else!). I like books about people who move to a new, entirely different place from what they’re used to.
    It’s sad to think some people can’t get to grocery stores and have to live off what they can find at convenience stores and gas stations. We have that problem here in places, as well – something that people are just starting to realize needs to be addressed.

  4. I remember you liked my post about Anne Moody’s autobiography about her life as an activist born and raised in Mississippi. Perhaps there is something about the region that draws you in!

    • I think it’s because that area and the way of life are very different from what I know. I have a strange fascination with rural Appalachia as well. I was very happy to discover that Coming of Age in Mississippi is on Hoopla, and now it’s on my summer audio list.

      • Excellent! Who reads it? Also, I just looked for Appalachia on Goodreads, and man are there a lot of books. There was one I was thinking of to recommend, but I can’t remember the title, and there are so many options that pop up. The Appalachia folks are a strange bunch. Many are encouraged to get married at the end of high school, they eat cold slaw on hot dogs, they have family pride that will make them murder… it’s an interesting place.

      • Hoopla has the most eclectic selection! I love it. I have no idea who (besides me) would read or listen to some of the books they offer. If your library offers it, I can highly recommend it! (Who in their right mind would put slaw on a hot dog?? (Just kidding!))

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