Few stories are more compelling than a grisly small-town crime where no one can agree on what happened – or why – and is solved, only to remain unsettling many years later. Add matricide and an incendiary period, and you have Beverly Lowry’s new book, “Deer Creek Drive: A Reckoning of Memory and Murder in the Mississippi Delta.”
Lowry has a special connection to her subject: she grew up in a nearby town, and although she was only 10 when the murder took place, it made such an impression on her that 70 years later, writes- her, the memories “still refuse to let go. A novelist who has written two other true-crime books, Lowry is finally returning to Mississippi to report not only the details of the case, but also the environment in which it took place. At the same time, she weaves her own troubled family history throughout the story. While the relevance of this parallel narrative is not always clear, Lowry’s granular recreation of this time and place treasuredly captures its sensibility.
Even the geology of the Mississippi Delta is suggestive, a wet, fertile plain that is not a delta at all but “a fat, juicy floodplain composed mostly of buckshot soil”, which gave rise to “white gold “, as cotton was once called. , apparently without irony. Descriptions of Lowry’s courtroom are particularly evocative, as she describes the rigorously enforced segregated seating, slow ceiling fans, spectators arriving with “picnic baskets filled with fried chicken or sandwiches Egg Salad” to watch the jury’s selection. Meanwhile, local newspapers report in detail on Ruth’s courthouse outfits and cover the party favors and debutante balls just as assiduously as the trial.
Summoning the customs and prejudices of the time as she re-examines this crime and its consequences, Lowry does her best to provide an “account” – as her title promises – with life in the Mississippi Delta in the 1950s. His forensic look at this period certainly shows that pervasive racism as well as a less frankly acknowledged homophobia surrounded the case. When Ruth Dickins stands trial for murder, she has few supporters. Instead, the townspeople seem eager to condemn her, one of the many strands of this tangled story that Lowry tries to unravel. Was it her short “masculine” hairstyle, her friendships with younger women, and her disregard for the “southern lady’s rule and behavior book” that turned so many against Ruth? All these years later, the people of Leland still don’t want to talk about it.
What is clear is that the investigation has been very confusing: Idella and Ruth appear to be related to half the townspeople, including the doctor who examines the body, the sheriff who helps clean up the bloody floor before he can photograph it, and the police chief who allows Ruth to go to the hospital before she is questioned and to change her clothes, which are then washed. More, somebody cleaned these shears.
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Perhaps the biggest surprise of the book is that, despite such a singularly botched investigation, the justice system more or less worked. Ruth’s attempts to pin the blame on an unknown black man failed, as did most of her wealthy husband’s efforts to pull political strings on her behalf after he was sent to the State Penitentiary. And even, has been justice done? Lowry believes that Ruth’s first-degree murder conviction was suspicious, given the details of the case, and eventually questions his conviction. Another family member was with Idella on the day she was murdered: Ruth’s “fragile older brother” Jimmy, who had long depended on Ruth to care for him. Why was he expelled from the city just before his indictment?
Calculation is a hopeful act but rarely settles what inspired the need for it. Lowry reveals that as a girl she shared some of the prejudices of that time, which is honorable to admit, but not unexpected, but clearly continues to bother her. As for the reluctance of the inhabitants to discuss the murder, their reluctance seems less linked to collective guilt than to the reluctance to reconsider the family disgrace. Rather, the significance of this story lies in its irresolution, showing how, like bigotry, violent crime will continue to cast a shadow over a community for generations, disrupting their sense of themselves as survivors.
Suzanne BernThe latest novel from, “The Blue Window,” will be published in January.
A Review of Memory and Murder in the Mississippi Delta
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