“When you grow up in the Delta, everything around you is falling in, and emptying out, and it really affects you. America isn’t supposed to be this way.”

“In twenty-two years,” Grant writes, “I had changed my address eighteen times.” A peripatetic writer whose job had taken him from East Africa to the Sierra Madre, his Manhattan pied-à-terre has become a little claustrophobic, not just to him but to his girlfriend Mariah and his dog Savanna.

So when he goes to Mississippi to visit his cookbook author friend Martha Hall Foose, and she shows him her ancestral home, a plantation house on five acres that her father wants to sell, he decides to relocate in the land of the blues, of which Lyndon Johnson famously said

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

and of which Grant writes in the prologue, never mind the first chapter

Drugs, religion, and welfare appeared to be the cornerstones of the local economy.

So he knows what he’s getting into, which doesn’t mean the revelations about this dysfunctional corner of the world don’t follow thick and fast.

Buying a gun was so much easier than getting a Mississippi driver’s license.

“The kids who live here have never seen one thing built,” said Martha. “They can’t imagine building something themselves, or someone else building it for them. When you grow up in the Delta, everything around you is falling in, and emptying out, and it really affects you. America isn’t supposed to be this way.”

In both Greenwood and Yazoo City, the public schools had received an F grade from the state education department, and in both places school administrators and community leaders had come up with the same solution: a big prayer rally, and no other changes in policy or personnel. Praying was also a way of doing nothing.

On eating the product of the first hunt either of them had ever been on:

The meat wasn’t gamy at all. It was rich and delicate and exquisitely delicious. The doe had fed to her heart’s content on clover, henbit, acorns, wild plums, corn, soybeans, and grasses. She had led an incomparably better life than any factory-farmed animal, and now she had become meat…If she had reached old age, her teeth would have worn away, and she would have starved to death. Coyotes and vultures would have eaten her. Instead she died instantly, provided us with meat for the next nine months, and one meal that we’d never forget.

There is, as anyone who has ever met anyone from the Deep South might expect, some great storytelling.

“It was a bunch of big ole young guys around a card table, and they were drunk, and starting to square off, and you could see what was about to happen. So Will Jones, who was on the other side of the room, picked up the hindquarters of a deer, which happened to be there cause it was hunting season, and man, he launched that thang. You could see the fat glisten as it grazed past the light fixture, and BAM! Here it lands, right on the card table. It totally defused the situation. I mean it just changed the whole damn subject. Hindquarters landing on a card table will do that every time.”

And then there is race and its perpetual hangover suffered by everyone of every color in the Delta.

“Why can’t they get their act together? When are they going to get it together? When are they going to quit hollering racism and get on with it?” We heard these sentiments often from Delta whites. It was a denial of the idea that the past affects the present, that systemic oppression can damage a people. After 250 years of slavery, 90 years of plantation sharecropping and Jim Crow, and 50 years more of unequal opportunity, deep poverty, and very slowly diminishing racism, black folks were expected to shake all that off like it was nothing and be grateful for their civil rights.

The first black man Grant meets after a year still won’t come into Grant’s house, or even up on his porch, and won’t meet his eyes.

This is a terrific book, a history lesson, a journey through a different kind of Oz, a word picture of a world most of us will never personally experience, and with way too many close encounters with cottonmouths. There is almost as much wildlife in the Delta as there is in Alaska, and a lot of it every bit as deadly. Highly recommended.

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Dana View All →

Author and founder of Storyknife.org.

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