In Dispatches from Pluto, British-born travel writer Richard Grant takes a trip to meet a friend in the Mississippi Delta, and ends up buying her father’s old plantation house. Moving his girlfriend and dog from a tiny Manhattan apartment, they throw themselves into Delta life – battling the snakes, armadillos and sometimes alligators that inhabit their garden, wrangling weeds that grow faster than they can yank them, hunting food for the table, discovering how hard it can be to heat a creaky old house in winter, and getting to know their new neighbours.
As well as telling the story of their move, the astonishing kindness of the people in his new life, and the stunning natural beauty that surrounds them, Grant also looks at some of the problems that are still rife in the Delta – poverty, a failing education system, high rates of teenage pregnancy, crime and racism. There aren’t any easy answers to any of those problems, and Grant doesn’t try to provide any, but instead uses his outsider eye to try and document the people and circumstances he comes across. The success of this approach was mixed for me – many of his neighbours have showered him with kindness and so, when a new friend says something casually (or even appallingly) racist, he’s loathe to challenge them, no doubt thinking of the life he’ll still have to live alongside them once his book was published, but which bugged me whenever we came up across sentences like: “Cathy joked that Mariah could be a welfare queen like all those black women having babies in Tchula and Thornton, and it was a sign of how close the two of them had become that Mariah didn’t get offended.” However, Grant does give voice to many other people with opposing voices, so it’s probably a little unfair of me to expect him to get into constant screaming matches with the people I disagreed with.
I’ve never visited America and the Delta does sound like an incredibly beautiful and interesting place, but personally I think a life there would be beyond me – I have a very strong aversion to hunting (although, as a meat eater, I realise that this makes me an incredible hypocrite) and I found the constant snake decapitations hard to even read about, I’m a terrible drinker (two spritzers and I’m either comatose or vomiting up my soul) and as a rather antisocial introvert I find the idea of neighbours constantly turning up and parties where guests don’t leave your house for freaking days the stuff of nightmares: I don’t think I’d fit well into the hard-drinking, hunting and hospitable Delta community. But as a weekend trip via book, it was an interesting and very readable experience, even when it irritated me.