“It’s just the South. There’s no point trying to explain it.”
Lately I have become more and more interested in learning about the Mississippi Delta region. Knowing that we were going to make a visit to Natchez, MS I decided to read The Deepest South of All by Richard Grant. This is a nonfiction book, perhaps leaning toward being an expose, about the small town of Natchez. Grant is also the author of Dispatches From Pluto.
Wow. The Deepest South of All is a definitely gossipy, perhaps lacking a breadth of research…still…it is a fascinating read and Natchez Mississippi is a fascinating place.
You can read here to find out what some of the people of Natchez thought about the book.
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The Deepest South of All – Book Review
- Author: Richard Grant
- Published: September 1, 2020
- Type: Nonfiction (though there are people in Natchez who would claim that parts of the book are fiction.)
- Genre: This is a cross between a travelogue and history with a bit of expose and gossip rag thrown in for good measure.
- I read The Deepest South of All on my Kindle and purchased from Amazon
My thoughts about The Deepest South of All
(Note: I probably should have reviewed this book before I visited Natchez. Because you see, I have now met real people who were terribly hurt by some of the stories contained in Grant’s book. However, I will try not to let that interfere with this review and will tell you how I felt just after reading it.)
First of all you should know that I could not put this book down.
Why? The Deepest South of All is:
- Immensely readable. Grant is a wonderful storyteller.
- Gossipy in a “settle in and I’ll pour us a glass of wine and you tell me everything” kind of way.
- About a compelling city that I had previously known nothing about.
- Also the true story of an African prince sold into slavery who, by the way, deserves an entire book of his own.
- About the most odd, quirky, eccentric people I have ever encountered in a book of nonfiction.
The Deepest South of All shows that Natchez is a place where even today a delicate dance being performed. The steps of this dance includes the push of trying to continue to appeal to tourists and older locals who want to romanticize the old south and the pull of being true to the history of slavery and the evils of racism.
Until the 1990’s the marketing slogan of Natchez was “Where the Old South Still Lives.” Yikes.
Grant covers a lot of ground in this book. Maybe too much. He talks about the both the complicated history and equally complicated recent events of Natchez in chapters that alternate with the fascinating true story of an African prince named Abdulrahman Ibrahima, who was sold into slavery and brought to Natchez.
The chapters that focus on present day Natchez are often about the long held traditions of the white folks in the town, particularly the garden clubs. There are two feuding clubs in Natchez, mostly run by white women, that have to work together during the Pilgrimage in order to raise money to save and maintain the antebellum homes.
Until very recently the Natchez Pilgrimage and all the festivities surrounding it have promoted a view of the south which either ignores the fact of slavery or presents a glossed over narrative that slavery wasn’t all that bad. Grant quotes one of the grand matrons,
“There were no slaves in Natchez,” she insisted haughtily. “We had field hands on our plantations, of course, but they were out of town or across the river. Here in Natchez, we had servants and we loved them. They were part of our families.”
What makes Natchez even more interesting and complex is that it is more tolerant than you might expect, particularly of the gay community. Their last mayor was a black, openly gay man who received over 90% of the vote.
One of the most telling quotes from The Deepest South of All is this:
“Asked to describe [Natchez], she said, ‘we are house-crazy. We adore old homes, antiques, throwing parties, making it fabulous. Gay men love it here. Natchez is very liberal and tolerant in some ways, and very conservative and racist in other ways, although I will say that our racists aren’t generally hateful or mean. Nor do they think they’re racists.’”
I think that Grant actually did a great job of showing this unusual dichotomy in Natchez through story after story about the local people both past and present. Always, but particularly in this book, Grant explores a location through the stories of its inhabitants. He is an excellent reader of people and obviously is good at encouraging them to tell their secrets.
Some of the stories about people still living in Natchez are rather shocking! Even a bit sordid. Perhaps there were things that he was told that he didn’t include in the book, but it sure doesn’t seem like it.
One thing I like about both this book and Dispatches From Pluto is that Grant shows the good and the bad of the situations he encounters. The city of Natchez and its people are neither demonized or romanticized. Grant seeks to truly grasp this town and the dynamics between black and white, past and present. You feel that he is genuinely interested in understanding and tries not to pass judgement on one side or the other.
I did have a couple of quibbles with the book. The first was Grant’s dependance on the insights of his hostess in Natchez. Regina Charbonneau is a Natchez native, cookbook author and restauranteur. She and Grant met at a book signing and she seems to be the main source for most of Grant’s observations about modern day Natchez. It makes the book feel a little one sided especially with regards to the garden clubs.
Perhaps because of his dependence on Ms Charbonneau it also seemed as if this book was not as well researched or as insightful as it could have been. There were times when I wondered if Ms Charbonneau and some of her friends were overly aware of saying interesting or shocking things in order to be quoted in the book. The stories in The Deepest South of All didn’t seem to have come about quite as organically as those in Dispatches From Pluto.
There were also moments when I felt that the book didn’t come together as a cohesive whole.
It was very much a collection of stories. Lots and lots of really interesting stories about really interesting people, but the historical aspects felt a bit underdeveloped and Grant doesn’t quite manage to pull all the stories together into a meaningful whole.
Even so, I definitely enjoyed this book and I do recommend reading it! Natchez is a place like no other.
Official Blurb about The Deepest South of All from Good Reads
Bestselling travel writer Richard Grant offers an entertaining and profound look at a city like no other.
Natchez, Mississippi, once had more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in America, and its wealth was built on slavery and cotton. Today it has the greatest concentration of antebellum mansions in the South, and a culture full of unexpected contradictions. Prominent white families dress up in hoopskirts and Confederate uniforms for ritual celebrations of the Old South, yet Natchez is also progressive enough to elect a gay black man for mayor with 91% of the vote.
Much as John Berendt did for Savannah in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and the hit podcast S-Town did for Woodstock, Alabama, so Richard Grant does for Natchez in The Deepest South of All. With humor and insight, he depicts a strange, eccentric town with an unforgettable cast of characters. There’s Buzz Harper, a six-foot-five gay antique dealer famous for swanning around in a mink coat with a uniformed manservant and a very short German bodybuilder. There’s Ginger Hyland, “The Lioness,” who owns 500 antique eyewash cups and decorates 168 Christmas trees with her jewelry collection. And there’s Nellie Jackson, a Cadillac-driving brothel madam who became an FBI informant about the KKK before being burned alive by one of her customers. Interwoven through these stories is the more somber and largely forgotten account of Abd al Rahman Ibrahima, a West African prince who was enslaved in Natchez and became a cause célèbre in the 1820s, eventually gaining his freedom and returning to Africa.
Part history and part travelogue, The Deepest South of All offers a gripping portrait of a complex American place, as it struggles to break free from the past and confront the legacy of slavery.
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