In Beverly Lowry’s latest issue-oriented, true crime book, Deer Creek Drive, the inner workings of Leland, a small Mississippi town, are laid bare when Ruth Dickins, a member of the “planter” elite, is brought to trial for murdering her mother. In many ways, her trial was a spectacle. It was similar to Leland’s highly anticipated and attended debutante balls, full of pageantry, involving the most prominent and wealthy members of the community, and oozing with white privilege.
Ruth was a part of the Stovall-Thompson lineage; her mother, Idella Thompson, was a descendent of the second-generation planter aristocracy. For her privilege and position in society, Ruth was simultaneously judged mercilessly and also given every leniency a wealthy white woman could afford.
Lowry grew up just outside Leland in Greenville, and while she was only ten at the time Idella was murdered, she, like the rest of the Delta community and eventually the nation, was enthralled by the details of the case. The scandal and violent nature of the murder — the matriarch was stabbed 150 times with pruning shears, her hairnet so enmeshed in her head that scalp came off with it when pulled away — played to the heart of people’s voyeuristic fascination with true crime and their not-so-secret desire to watch the upper class fall.
But readers hoping for a clear-cut villain to prosecute and lock away forever may be disappointed. There’s no satisfying conclusion in Deer Creek Drive and in the end, the “killer” is set free. Beyond her husband’s and her own undying resolution, Ruth’s guilt is palpable throughout the community. After she is sent to Parchman prison to serve her life sentence, advocates fighting for her release carefully sidestep the question of guilt and instead resort to a kind of “she’s been punished enough” sentiment. These advocates included two governors, the first who suspended her sentence, and the second, who fully pardoned her.
Lowry includes a chapter near the end of the book indulging her theories about the case, but ultimately, she too believes Ruth was guilty. By the time you reach this part of the book, it’s painfully clear that the question of if she did it is far less interesting than why it even matters.
With the initial thrill of the murder mystery in the past, Lowry is now able to reckon with this seemingly pivotal event in Delta history. She interweaves the case with the racial politics of the time, making clear the inequalities and injustices endured by Black people at every turn, though, race wasn’t an element completely lost on people in the moment. When Ruth blames a nondescript Black man as the true murderer, people saw it for what it was, a textbook alibi for a guilty white woman sure she could get away with it.
However, Lowry’s perspective as both outsider to Leland and insider to the South gives the book an intimate tone. Her writing feels like your good friend is telling you a story with all the insight and wry judgment that only time and space can give, it’s vulnerable yet addicting.
She observes the ways cotillions and debutante balls reinforced white supremacy and also concedes how she coveted the approval that came with being a member. She wonders how the governor had time to visit Ruth in prison and then Leland to gauge the town’s interest in her release while he only made a brief statement of remorse about the brutal murder of Emmett Till. She baldly assesses school desegregation: “Truth be told, the battle lines were not that different from the ones drawn ninety-five years earlier when the Confederacy was born and the southern states seceded.” Lowry also admits how unsettling but also normal it was when she was placed in a television segment used to argue why Black students shouldn’t be enrolled at her high school.
Lowry’s observations about race and white privilege aren’t necessarily new but her candid way of laying out the injustices, just as they are, is refreshing. She does not make excuses for her experiences nor for her lack of awareness. Beverly Lowry is no white savoir.
What she is, is a thoughtful and skilled storyteller, taking a familiar yarn about a small town murder and spinning it into a unique story about how white supremacy and white privilege shaped both her youth and the South.
Deer Creek Drive:
A Reckoning of Memory and Murder in the Mississippi Delta
by Beverly Lowry
Published August 2, 2022