A REVIEW OF
Deer Creek Drive: A Reckoning of Memory and Murder in the Mississippi Delta
By Beverly Lowry
Alfred A. Knopf
Hardcover, 368 pages
Greenville murder haunts life of famed Mississippi writer Beverly Lowry
By Margaret McMullan
Special to the Mississippi Clarion Ledger
USA TODAY NETWORK
“Deer Creek Drive” opens with State Exhibit No 1, an architectural rendering of the Leland, Mississippi home where Idella Thompson was hacked to death with a pair of gardening shears inside her back porch. The shears belonged to Idella’s 42-year-old daughter, Ruth, who said she surprised the killer, a man she described as a “Negro” who might have been stealing pecans. Ruth claimed she fought the man until he ran off.
Sixty-eight-year old Idella was stabbed over 150 times, then dragged on a small rug into her bathroom. Ruth called the family doctor, not the police.
In 1948, the murder made national headlines, and the case eventually made its way to the Mississippi Supreme Court.
Idella died on the most desirable street in town. Locals say, “If you want to get to heaven, you have to live on Deer Creek Drive.”
“Deer Creek Drive” is the story of Ruth Dickens and the murder of her mother. It’s also the story of the author, Beverly Lowry, the rise and fall of her own family, and the “hot tamale region” where they lived. Author of “Crossed Over: A Murder, a Memoir” and nine other books, Lowry is at her peak, skillfully braiding the Thompson murder with her own experience of growing up in Greenville. Using primary sources, documents, court testimony, newspaper articles, her own memory along with others, she tells the story of an “unreconstructed South” on the cusp of change, shining a light on the casual racism and sexism of our past.
The revelation that there was no “Negro” comes early. The next questions are who killed Idella Thompson and why?
Ruth is the only eyewitness. She was a Sunday school teacher, a wife, a devoted mother, a Chi Omega, and a member of the upper tier in an established community.
Why would Ruth murder her own mother?
And if she did, how could the state possibly persuade twelve white Mississippi jurymen to convict her of murdering her own mother?
Astonishingly, the court of public opinion was against Ruth, a Hollins College graduate with a “mannish bob,” and an unusually deep voice. She was a part of the “planter class” who wanted to keep their family land, but didn’t want to farm. Somebody with money getting away with things.
Townspeople claimed Ruth had a “high-hatted unpleasantness” and a habit of blowing her car horn until someone came over to take her order. She was “unnaturally calm” and had “an unladylike tendency to tell it like it is.” She didn’t cry over her dead mother either. In Ruth’s own words, she “petted her [mother’s] little hands” and tried to love her up a little” before she left her bloody body on the bathroom floor.
With her wry wit and keen eye for detail, Lowry provides exquisite access to the town and the family. There is Idella, known to be “right difficult;” John Dickens, the stalwart husband, and Ruth’s older brother, Jimmy, who’d left the University of Virginia after three years and lived at home with his mother.
By the time, we get to the courthouse with its six slow moving ceiling fans, and the pigeon flailing to break free, Lowry rehashes the grisly details—two torn fingernails, a bloody handkerchief, a small pearl-like button, the handful of hair extracted from the dead woman’s closed fist.
Providing historical context, weather reports, football scores, and Elvis, Lowry susses out the facts behind this violent murder, giving us an exacting story about social status, race, and white privilege that resonates far beyond the Delta.
In and out of the courtroom, we take sides, and pass judgement. There is the question of the “who” in this who-done-it, but the real question here is justice, how we all unwittingly play a part, and the lengths white people will go to protect their own even when it means their own undoing.
Beverly Lowry will be a panelist at the Mississippi Book Festival, Saturday August 20 at the State Capitol.
Margaret McMullan is the author of nine award-winning books including “Where the Angels Lived”. She recently co-produced the documentary “Look Away, Look Away” with her husband, Patrick O’Connor. Follow her on Twitter: @MargaretMcMulla