By: Nanci Kinkaid
Reviewed by: Beth Thames
Little, Brown, & Company, 2009
Courtney and Truely Noonan, brother and sister, sit across the kitchen table from each other in their Mississippi childhood home, a southern table loaded with their mother’s fried chicken and skillets of cornbread. Nice kids, they are growing up as expected. But expected comes to a halt when Courtney announces she is moving to California to pursue her dreams, whatever they might be. She imagines it to be "a place generously littered with dreams and dreamers," but her parents wonder what’s gotten into her, and what’s wrong with chasing your dreams in Hinds County, Mississippi? When little brother Truely follows a few years later, the parents puzzle over what they did wrong. The answer, of course, is nothing at all.
In Nanci Kincaid’s new novel Eat, Drink, and Be from Mississippi, the pivotal action takes place in the San Francisco loft of little brother Truely and the sprawling Southern California mansion belonging to Courtney and her husband. The siblings make their separate fortunes, grieve as their marriages dissolve, and eventually create California lives for themselves. They stumble forward with the help of Mexican food, friendship, religion, and finally, a street-wise kid named Arnold.
A wise-cracking, "up from the hood" black kid, Arnold weasels his way into lonely Truely’s life, first by moving into his loft and eventually by claiming his part of it. (He declares one of the bathrooms his "office.") Courtney takes him on as her project, eventually teaching him the value of the education she is pushing, introducing him to books on tape and trying to get him to drop his "ghetto mentality," as she calls it.
Arnold teaches Courtney something, too. In his world, people don’t go around dropping $200 on dinner, and every now and then, people are armed because it’s not so safe out there. The view from Arnold’s neighborhood is not the same as the one from Truely’s deck overlooking the Bay.
The novel is a love story with an unexpected twist: The real love is between Arnold and his newfound family, these rich white siblings from way down south. In the climactic last chapters, the family is threatened by Arnold’s choices and their own fears of losing this young man who has become one of them.
In this novel, Kincaid explores race, love, and leaving home, reminding us that part of it still sticks like deep Mississippi mud. More importantly, she redefines the notion of family way beyond blood kin to include anybody we allow to camp out first in our homes and finally in our hearts. March 2009
Beth Thames is an English instructor at John C. Calhoun Community College and a columnist for the Huntsville Times. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Southern Living, and Atlanta Magazine.