Dispatches From Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta – Book Review

“There’s America, there’s the South, then there’s Mississippi.”

If you are a southerner then Dispatches From Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta might make you squirm a bit…but perhaps it is good to see oneself and one’s home through the eyes of an outsider occasionally.

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Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta – Book Review

Cover of Dispatches From Pluto: Lost and found in the Mississippi Delta - book review
  • Author: Richard Grant
  • Published: October 13, 2015
  • Type: Non-fiction
  • Genre: Memoir, Travelogue
  • I read it on Kindle

Official Blurb from Good Reads:

In Dispatches from Pluto, adventure writer Richard Grant takes on “the most American place on Earth”—the enigmatic, beautiful, often derided Mississippi Delta.

Richard Grant and his girlfriend were living in a shoebox apartment in New York City when they decided on a whim to buy an old plantation house in the Mississippi Delta. Dispatches from Pluto is their journey of discovery into this strange and wonderful American place. Imagine A Year In Provence with alligators and assassins, or Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil with hunting scenes and swamp-to-table dining.

On a remote, isolated strip of land, three miles beyond the tiny community of Pluto, Richard and his girlfriend, Mariah, embark on a new life. They learn to hunt, grow their own food, and fend off alligators, snakes, and varmints galore. They befriend an array of unforgettable local characters—blues legend T-Model Ford, cookbook maven Martha Foose, catfish farmers, eccentric millionaires, and the actor Morgan Freeman. Grant brings an adept, empathetic eye to the fascinating people he meets, capturing the rich, extraordinary culture of the Delta, while tracking its utterly bizarre and criminal extremes. Reporting from all angles as only an outsider can, Grant also delves deeply into the Delta’s lingering racial tensions. He finds that de facto segregation continues. Yet even as he observes major structural problems, he encounters many close, loving, and interdependent relationships between black and white families—and good reasons for hope.

Dispatches from Pluto is a book as unique as the Delta itself. It’s lively, entertaining, and funny, containing a travel writer’s flair for in-depth reporting alongside insightful reflections on poverty, community, and race. It’s also a love story, as the nomadic Grant learns to settle down. He falls not just for his girlfriend but for the beguiling place they now call home. Mississippi, Grant concludes, is the best-kept secret in America

My thoughts about Dispatches From Pluto

I loved it.

I think that Dispatches from Pluto should be required reading for everyone who hasn’t ever lived in the southern US. It should also be required reading for those who do live in the southern US because it will allow you to see your world through the eyes of an outsider.

As mentioned in the blurb it is written in the same vein as A Year in Provence. You know the story line…a “foreigner” moves to a “new to them” place and writes about the foibles of the natives. This has the potential to feel a little condescending. Many authors tend to exploit or make fun of the unfamiliar culture in their stories rather than writing about their own attempts to learn and assimilate.

There is a skinny little line to walk when writing in this genre in order to neither patronize nor romanticize and I think that Grant walked it well.

He acknowledges the problems of the Delta without coming across as disdainful. Some of his stories will probably be hurtful to some southerners, but I always felt that he was trying to understand rather than to judge. I mean, heck, at least he actually came to Mississippi and lived there and experienced the place. One of my pet peeves is people who have never set foot in the south who sneer at what they assume they know about it.

Not only did Grant and his girlfriend Mariah live in the Delta, they bought a house there, they gardened, she canned, he hunted…and they actually seemed to like it. They seemed to truly enjoy both the land and the people they were meeting.

Perhaps that is not such a big surprise. The Mississippi is a sultry, seductive place. I think that Grant captured that. His descriptions of the land, the heat, and the fecundity of the area were spot on. Even better were his stories about the people. You read about the good and the bad, the generosity and hospitality, as well as the craziness and racism. It seemed that both Grant and Mariah were accepting of the locals despite their differences.

Perhaps this was because early in his stay Grant’s friend, Martha Foose, gave him the following advice:

“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.” 

I do think that the couple tried to find the good side of the people they were meeting.

Grant doesn’t shy away from the very real problems in this region. The poverty, the discrimination, the teenage pregnancy, the drugs, and especially the racism. He talks about racism without quite being able to grasp or explain it. He says at one point near the end of the book,

“It was when you tried to measure and quantify prejudice that it all turned to smoke. . . when it comes to racism in Mississippi, complexity and contradiction are the most solid, reliable things to hang onto.”

Let’s face it, if events of recent months have proven anything it is that racism is not just a southern issue. None of us can fully “grasp or explain it.” We just have to keep on and keep on doing better and working to fix things.

Grant is right with his use of the words complexity and contradiction. This is a complex part of the country with complex issues and although Dispatches From Pluto often reads as humorous when you look a little closer you realize that this is a complex book. I think that Grant did his best to comprehend this foreign place in which he had landed. He tried hard to see things from every point of view.

However, a year of living somewhere so convoluted isn’t enough and no single book can tell the entire story of a place. I’m sure that there will be people who are annoyed by the way they or their region has been portrayed in Dispatches From Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta, however I felt that Mr Grant did his best as an outsider to be balanced and fair.

Photo of the Mississippi river at sunset. Dispatches From Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta - Book Review

Here is a post about another Delta town, Greenwood, Mississippi…and here is one about the Viking Cooking School located in Greenwood. Perhaps you’d like to explore part of Mississippi that is not in the Delta area? If so, check out the amazing little town of Laurel, Mississippi.

If you enjoy southern cooking check out my post about the Ultimate Southern Cookbooks. Martha Foose is included in the list!

Thanks for stopping by!