The state of Mississippi has long fascinated me because of its rich Civil War history and its remarkable literary tradition – two key interests I have enjoyed my entire life. I first started exploring Mississippi by car in the late 1980s and I have continued to do so to this day, often spending many of my vacation days driving the state on self-directed Civil War tours, or ones designed to hit as many of the state’s wonderful bookstores and literary landmarks as I can manage in a week or ten days.
As everyone knows, though, Mississippi has its dark side, a legacy from the darkest days of slavery that continues to haunt the state to this day. Look at all the standards by which American states are generally measured, and you are likely to find Mississippi near, or actually at, the bottom of every single one of them. But then consider some other measurement, such as which states produce the highest number of prominent writers (per capita or otherwise) and Mississippi probably stands near the top of the list. Let’s just say that as much as I love the state, I don’t always feel safe driving its back roads on my own.
Richard Grant’s Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta portrays Mississippi and her people through the eyes of a British adventure/travel writer, a man who first became acquainted with the state while “interviewing elderly blues singers in the mid-1990s.” Grant was charmed by Mississippi, particularly by the city of Oxford, while on that initial project and would return periodically to visit his Mississippi friends. On one of those visits an old friend brought Grant to the Mississippi Delta region to show him her “home ground,” and Grant so fell in love with an old plantation house (near Pluto, Mississippi) belonging to his friend’s father that he impetuously offered to buy it – without first mentioning anything to his New York City girlfriend. Luckily for Grant, his girlfriend was as ready to get away from New York City as he was, and after looking at the house she agreed to give the Delta a shot.
Thus begins the Mississippi Delta adventure of two people who could hardly have been any more different from their new neighbors if they had tried. Richard and Mariah were liberal left-wing progressives for whom being politically correct in speech and thought was simply a way of life. For their neighbors, shall we say, it was not. But in the next few months, Richard and Mariah would make some of the closest friends they had ever had, and would explore the Delta in a way that outsiders are seldom permitted to do.
Grant would learn just how tricky race relations still are in Mississippi, a state with so large a black population that blacks can be said to hold as much (or even more) political clout as whites. He would learn that many Mississippi blacks would not look him in the eye when speaking with him; that even if he considered them a friend, many blacks preferred to speak with him outside or to enter his home from its rear entrance; and that there were many places his black friends did not think safe for a white man to visit – even in their company. Grant, though, because he wanted to tell Mississippi’s story, was persistent and he managed to get both his black friends and his white friends to be honest with him.
Along the way he meets some of Mississippi’s most colorful people and some of her most famous, including actor Morgan Freeman who still lives in Mississippi when not working on a film, and owns (with partners) what is perhaps the state’s most famous blues club. He explores the often bizarre world of small town Mississippi politics (in which gunfire and threats sometimes play a key role), the blues legacy being left behind by a generation of blues pioneers now steadily dying off, and the improving but still delicately balanced relationship between the state’s black and white populations.
Dispatches from Pluto exposes a side of a state that has been underappreciated for too long. Mississippi is rich in history, music, and American culture in a way that many other states cannot claim to be. Maybe a few more books like Dispatches from Pluto will finally expose what is still a well kept secret: Mississippi is a great place to visit – for a lot of good reasons.