An Englishman Riffs on Blues, Booze & Race Relations in the Mississippi Delta

Some reviewers compare adventure writer Richard Grant’s  Dispatches From Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta  to Peter Mayle( A Year in Provence, and Frances Mayes( Under the Tuscan Sun). It’s true that Grant is an Englishman like Mayle with a great sense of humor and writes about the South in an often poetic way like Mayes. But, there the similarity ends and Grant’s original voice takes over.

He successfully depicts the best and worst of Holmes County, Mississippi, the ‘poorest county in the poorest State’. When he and his longtime girlfriend move from NYC, neither realizes the enormity of the relocation as they leave behind all semblances of normalcy. Sure, they’re migrating to a hotter climate with wide open spaces(except for the ever growing kudzu and bamboo). Once in their dilapidated mansion they find that they are sharing their home, walls, attic and backyard with an assortment of animals only seen in New York at the Bronx  Zoo. These consist of 2 and 4 legged owls, nutrias, rats, mice, alligators and armadillos as well as cottonwood snakes, mosquitoes and fire ants. The house is mostly unfurnished, hot as Hades in the summer and cold as ice in the winter with a multitude of holes, patches, problems, rotted walls and pipes in what appears to be the original Money Pit rather than a paradise dream home. None of this gets our narrator down, however. Instead, he makes his way through the county meeting people, making friends, absorbing all sorts of tall tales about murderers, embezzlers, rapists, bootleggers, musicians and other nefarious oddballs in The Delta.

But, what makes the largest impression is Grant’s view of race relations here in the heart of the Civil Rights struggle as he shares perspectives and opinions from both black and white citizens. To this day, the area is hardly integrated and there continues to be a great distrust between races. He writes of a white millionaire’s foundation which took over a school that carried an F rating from the state, installed a black activist Principal and a died in the wool young white liberal teacher. These two turned the school around much to the dismay of those previously in control. Grant laments how this should have been celebrated as a victory but even these long years after the end of slavery and the civil rights struggle no one seems to be able to make positive changes stick. Grant exposes the good, bad and ugly and underneath many wacky moments introduces a significant look at race relations in the South from an Englishman’s point of view.

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