Friday, November 23, 2007

[Book Review] GETTING MOTHER'S BODY by Suzan-Lori Parks


Doris Dixon reviews GETTING MOTHER'S BODY by Suzan-Lori Parks (Random House, 2003)

It took me some time to finish this review of Suzan-Lori Parks' impressive debut novel. Here's the issue that stumped me: how do I talk about this book in relation to the African-American fiction titles commonly requested at my library? The answer: I can't.

Getting Mother's Body is not urban fiction. Although there is some "drama," this novel, set in the 1960s American Southwest, is more character-driven than many popular titles. It's not inspirational fiction, either. The book opens with a sex scene in which the main character wonders what her lover has done with her panties. This morning, I finally realized that I should focus on the book's universal appeal. It's a story of how characters jostle to overcome bad decisions and hardscrabble circumstances.

Billy Beede is in trouble. Sixteen and pregnant, she's too often motivated by pride, as when she quit her job at the hair salon. Even though the owner admitted that Billy brought in most of the customers, she'd still refused to pay the young woman more money. It's been six years since the death of Billy's mother, Willa Mae. Billy lives with her Uncle Roosevelt and Aunt June, who run a gas station in a small Texas town and are very poor. She sleeps on a mat behind the service counter.

Billy dreams of a new life with the father of her baby. He promises to wed her, but first she must meet his sister, who lives in another town. Billy makes the trip by bus. In the box on her lap sits a beautiful white wedding gown that the teen finagled from the soft-hearted owner of the local dress shop (Billy had learned to run cons from her mother as they traveled the Southwest in a red convertible, a gift from one of Willa Mae's many "husbands"). At her destination, she learns that her lover is already married, but was too much of a coward to tell her himself.

What to do? Billy has always discounted the stories people told about the "treasure" buried with her mother. Hmm? If she can recover the jewels, she'll have enough money to get rid of the baby and start a new life.

Willa Mae is buried hundreds of miles away in Arizona. When Uncle Roosevelt and Aunt June receive a letter stating that the grave site will soon be disturbed to make way for a grocery store, they too decide to claim the treasure. Roosevelt, a former preacher, wants to build a new church and June wants to purchase a prosthetic leg. Billy, Roosevelt and June drive to Arizona in a truck that Billy "borrows" from Willa Mae's last husband, the transgendered Dill Smiles. Dill pursues the trio, vowing to shoot dead anyone who disturbs Willa Mae's grave.

Why did it take so long to write this review? I spent too much time worrying about genres and categories (After reading an earlier version of this review, one coworker said that Getting Mother's Body sounded like "Southern Gothic" to her). For me, the magic of the book lies in its "African-Americanness" (the language, gestures, and situations that seemed familiar) and in its larger project of grappling with what it means to be human. In that way, Parks' novel could be placed within a long trajectory of African-American literature, a tradition that some critics may argue is being eclipsed by some of today's most popular titles.

With humor, compassion and an ear for the musicality of language, Parks gives voice to one-of-a-kind characters. Although Billy Beede is the main character, I found the tragic stories of her uncle and aunt even more compelling. Despite often being disappointed with one another, they treat other with kindness and respect. At different points, Roosevelt and June are motivated by altruism, selfishness, desperation or love. For example, their trip to Arizona is inspired in part by their desire to ensure a proper re-burial for Willa Mae. Well into middle-age, these two people still wrestle with tough questions about how "to be." Sixteen-year-old Billy has two excellent role models.

Doris Dixon, Raleigh Branch Library

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I'm thinking more Dirty South than Gothic; although, the prosthetic has me thinking Flannery O'Connor. :D

My husband will love this book! Thanks for the great review.
Hey Maggie,

It's good to hear from you.

LOL. "Dirty South" makes me think of southern-fried rap music.

Hi Doris,

I've been reading your reviews for a while and have really enjoyed them. I teach high school English and my kids absolutely love this book--the beginning, of course, hooks them. You're right about the level of complexity; Faulkner comes to mind.

Jill (yes, that one)
Billy lives with her Uncle Roosevelt and Aunt June, not Homer. Homer is her cousin from another town.
Thank you for the correction! I will update the review shortly.
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