Few stories are more terrifying than a horrific small town crime where no one can agree on what happened – or why – that was solved, only to remain unsettling many years later. Add a mother’s murder and an incendiary time period, and you have Beverly Laurie’s new book, “Deer Creek Drive: A Reckoning of Memory and Murder in the Mississippi Delta.”
Lowry has a special relationship to her subject: She grew up in a neighboring town, and although she was only ten when the murder occurred, she made an impression on her 70 years later, as she wrote, “the memories still refuse to let go.” A novelist who has written two other books about the true crime Laurie finally returns to Mississippi to report not only the details of the case but also the environment in which it unfolded. At the same time, she makes up her own turbulent family history throughout the story. While the significance of this parallel narrative is not always clear, Lowry’s accurate re-creation of that time and place valuablely captures his sensibility.
Even the geology of the Mississippi Delta suggests that it is a flat, moist, fertile land that is not a delta at all but a “succulent flood plain mostly of bulletproof dirt,” giving rise to “white gold,” as cotton was once called, apparently without mockery. Lowry’s description of the courtroom is particularly evocative, describing the strictly separated seats, sluggish ceiling fans, and spectators arriving with “picnic baskets filled with fried chicken or egg salad sandwiches” to watch the jury’s selection. Meanwhile, local newspapers detail Ruth’s courtroom outfit, covering assistants and junior balls just like the trial.
Collecting the habits and prejudices of the period re-investigating this crime and its aftermath, Lowry does her best to provide an “account” – as her title promised – of life in the Mississippi Delta in the 1950s. Certainly, a forensic look at that period shows that rampant racism as well as openly unrecognized homophobia surrounded the case. When Ruth Dickens is on trial for murder, she has few supporters. Instead, the townspeople seem eager to condemn her, one of the many threads of this tangled story that Lowry is trying to provoke. Was her short, “manly” hairstyle, her friendships with younger women and her mockery of “The Southern Lady’s Code and Conduct Book” what made so many people against Ruth? After all these years, people in Leyland still didn’t want to talk about it.
What is clear is that the investigation was very muddled: Adela and Ruth seem to be connected to half the people in town, including the doctor examining the body, the mayor allowing blood-stained floors to be wiped before being photographed, the police chief who allowed Ruth to go to the hospital before questioning her, and changing Her clothes are then washed. Plus, someone Wipe those shears clean.
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Perhaps the book’s biggest surprise was that despite this bizarre botched investigation, the justice system was somewhat successful. Ruth’s attempts to lay the blame on an unknown black man failed, as did most of her wealthy husband’s efforts to attract political leads on her behalf after she was sent to a state prison. and yet, I was served justice? Laurie feels that the first-degree murder sentence for Ruth was suspect, given the details of the case, and ultimately questions her guilt. Another family member was with Adela on the day of her murder: Ruth’s “fragile older brother”, Jimmy, who had long relied on Ruth for his care. Why did he get out of town right before she was charged?
Arithmetic is a hopeful business, but it seldom settles everything that inspires a need. Laurie reveals that as a girl she shared some of the prejudices of that era, which is honorable to admit, albeit not unexpected, but which obviously still bothers her. As for locals’ reluctance to discuss the murder, their reticence is not so much about collective guilt as it seems reluctance to reconsider familial shame. Rather, the significance of this story lies in its unresolved, in showing how violent crime, like bigotry, will continue to cast a shadow over society for generations, upsetting their sense of being survivors.
Susan BurnThe latest “Blue Window” novel will be published in January.
An account of memory and murder in the Mississippi Delta
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