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Getting Mother's Body.

By Suzan-Lori Parks Random House, May 2003 $23.95, ISBN 1-400-06022-2

This debut novel by a 2001 MacArthur-genius grantee and 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist (for Topdog/Underdog) is as deceptively short and simple a narrative as a good blues song. Suzan-Lori Parks writes seamlessly in the droll speech patterns of mid-20th century rural black folks about a desperate quest. The story, which takes place largely in a segregated Texas backwater town, is told from the various perspectives and voices of a cast of idiosyncratic characters in alternating chapters, resonant with themes of legend, fortune and legacy.

The lead protagonist, a pregnant unmarried teen named Billy Beede, was orphaned at age 10 by a woman whose life and death is enshrined in the local folklore of dusty Lincoln, Texas. The fabled Willa Mae Beede, offspring of the hard-luck Beede clan of Durham County, was a white-looking, flee-spirited blues singer and part-time grifter who showed up in Lincoln where her brother and his wife had settled. She pairs off with the town's self-made hog farmer, Dill Smiles, whose hazy origins have thus far been unquestioned. Dill remains devoted to her, although Willa Mae bellows Dill's secret of concealed female gender to the town folks. (The locals, however, have come to respect Dill too much to shun her.) They stay together, although Willa Mae periodically trysts with male lovers, which is how the dark-skinned daughter Billy Beede gets born.

Since Willa Mae and Dill have an understanding, Willa Mae occasionally takes Billy off with her on out-of-town rambles. Unfortunately, one excursion ends in Willa Mae's death from a self-administered abortion in LaJunta, Arizona, two days' drive west of Lincoln. Called to Willa Mae's deathbed, Dill gets there in time to bury her according to her wishes, with a pearl necklace and diamond ring she had been given by the rich white man who jilted her.

Dill brings Billy Beede back to Lincoln to live with childless relatives: Billy's uncle, a former preacher--who in storied Beede fashion, bad lost his church and his calling--and his one-legged wife.

When Billy herself becomes pregnant and is abandoned by an itinerant coffinmaker, who has a wife and children in Texahoma, her mother's fabled jewels seem to hold one answer to her predicament. She steals Dill's new truck, and with her troubled uncle and aunt takes off to disinter and reclaim her mother's body and the inheritance presumably buried with it before the grave can be paved over for a supermarket parking lot.

Dill follows in hot pursuit driven by the local black mortician's goofy younger son who has always been sweet on Billy. It's a journey of comic misadventures and richly poignant consequences, about which Billy says finally, "I think we did all right" And I think Suzan-Lori Parks did all right, too.
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Author:McHenry, Susan
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 2003
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