Getting Mother’s Body

book by Suzan-Lori Parks

annotation by Diane Sherlock

Getting Mother’s Body is an entertaining novel about Billy Beede, sixteen years old, pregnant by a man whom she discovers has children and is married to someone else. She travels from Texas to Arizona with the objective of digging up her mother’s grave to claim the jewels believed to be buried with her mother. Each chapter is told from the first person POV of one of the characters, with everyone having more than one turn. Even the dead mother, Willa Mae Beede, has chapters, mostly consisting of blues songs. We get to hear different perspectives on the same events and varying opinions of the cast of characters. It also solves the ever-present problem of exposition and backstory, allowing bits and pieces to emerge without overwhelming the narrative.

Parks writes with authority. She uses unconventional spellings, such as “yr” for “your” and “wichu” for “with you.” This device conveys the language patterns of the characters. Parks clearly thought a lot about the spellings which could have undercut the 1963 time period and looked like text messages, but the author seems aware of this danger and avoids it. The unconventional spelling did not make the book difficult to read and added authenticity to the dialogue.

Even though there were clues along the way, I did not know what to expect at the end. Parks is expert at narrative sleight of hand, redirecting the reader’s attention while laying the groundwork for a satisfying and realistic plot resolution. For one thing, she knows that there’s no such thing as absolute silence in a story. In Little Walter Little’s barbershop, “We go quiet. Just the sounds of the scissors going around our heads.” She incorporates small moments of sensory detail like these throughout the narrative, allowing the reader to get lost in the world she creates. Meanwhile, she’s building a credible sequence of events about incredible acts.

The most helpful element for my writing was on page 37. Parks has a character let us know that the mother’s jewelry was never buried with her. Normally, I’d expect to find that at the end, but she slaps it right up front in a chapter from the POV of Dill Smiles (how great is that name?), one of the dead woman’s lovers, who not only took the jewelry, but sold most of it. All of this information is repeated again at page 116, “I took them and I sold the pearls one by one, for a hell of a lot more than ten dollars a piece, to keep myself afloat and I weren’t wrong to sell them. And when I need to sell the ring, I’ll sell it.” I wasn’t sure about the repetition of information, but my best guess is that Parks tried the book with and without this reinforcement and found that she needed it in order to make the end work. It turns out to be half true. Dill did take the jewelry, but only half of that jewelry was real. There’s a great image at the end of her checking the ring, narrated by Billy, “When we rode back from LaJunta, Dill rode in the truck bed. She didn’t want to drive and she didn’t want to talk. Every once in a while she would take something out of her pocket. She reached up and ran the thing across the back of the truck cab window. It didn’t cut the glass. Teddy and June didn’t see but I seen. It was a diamond-looking ring Dill had. Then I knew Dill had tooked it from Mother and if Dill and tooked that ring then she had tooked the pearls too. Maybe real pearls maybe not real pearls, we never did find no kind of pearls at all, but I wasn’t gonna ask Dill about them while we was riding back home. I wasn’t never gonna ask her.” Amazing image, beautifully done and through action. The reader can see Dill testing the stone in the ring and, from Dill’s earlier chapters, imagine her body language and expression. Parks has laid all of the groundwork and earned every pay off for her conclusion. The reader believes that there are no jewels to be had, and thanks to another setup of the mother’s past behavior sewing valuables into hems, Billy finds the real ring and it’s a surprise, believably executed.

Parks also sets up multiple tensions that I found helpful to study. There is the tension of whether or not Billy will get an abortion, whether it’s too late – the choice of ‘it’ or baby – and how she would cope if she does have the baby. Parks sets up a number of obstacles to Billy getting the treasure: whether the jewels are there, that Dill seems to have them, whether to go dig up the mother, how to get to the gravesite, the reality of looking at the corpse – all very well drawn. It’s utterly believable that Billy’s perspective on life and on her mother would change when she sees the skeletal remains of her mother. Death becomes real and sharpens decisions she makes about her life. There’s the added tension throughout the book of whether or not she is her mother’s daughter. She desperately does not want to be like her mother and yet there are many ways Billy does follow in Willa Mae’s footsteps, even literally as a child in wet sand walking behind her mother. “Once, when me and Billy went to Galveston, we had our shoes off and was walking in the wet sand. Billy walked behind me putting her feet prints where my feets had already made a mark. Good Lord, I thought, my child’s following in my footsteps. But I tried not to worry. The way I see it, you can only dig a hole so deep.”

The novel is funny, wise, and heartbreaking in its sadness. Parks manages to include social commentary through an expertly woven narrative that provides a sense of justice and a satisfying conclusion. The end is not over the top, but a quiet conclusion of the twin realizations of Billy and her uncle, both transformed as they both come face to face with the decay of old ghosts, he with the obliteration of his old church and she with the reality of her mother’s death.

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