Getting Mother’s Body (pub. May, 2003; ISBN 1400060222) is the title of a novel by 2002 Pulitzer Prize winning author Suzan-Lori Parks, a terrific piece of literature in which Parks weaves one family’s greed, desparation and general distrust into a vivid patchwork quilt of fiction.
The story finds its setting in Ector County, Texas, during middle twentieth century America. Enter Billy Beede knocked-up and unmarried, she’s just one facet of a down-on-its-luck, cynical, and perhaps downright dysfunctional “negro” family, which includes, amongst a cast of others, Billy’s one-legged Aunt June, disillusioned minister Uncle Teddy, and Dill, the apparent “bulldagger, dyke, lezzy, what-have-you” one-time lover of her momma Willa Mae, a former blues and lounge singer.
With little time and money to her name, Billy attempts to save up money to get an abortion. Try as she might, however, the time begins to disappear far quicker than the money appears. Everything changes, though, when a letter arrives from a distant relative in La Junta, Arizona, announcing that the plot of land where Willa Mae, is buried is about to be plowed over to build a shopping center. If she isn’t retrieved, she’ll simply be paved over.
Meanwhile, in the years following Willa Mae’s death, unsubstantiated rumours that she was buried with a veritable collection of jewels had been fairly well-known but rarely discussed. It isn’t long before the wheels start to turn in Billy’s head, however, and soon thereafter, unspoken deeds from the past and an all-around malaise of rapaciousness set in, resulting in a “winner-take-all” rally across the wastelands of the midwest to claim the bounty.
Getting Mother’s Body is a fantastically written book full of dry, quirky humour and sardonic wit amidst the vague canvases of racist west Texas. Each chapter is titled after a specific character from the book, whereupon the reader sees the adventure through said character’s perspective in a way that is not choppy, and does not detract from the storyline. Willa Mae herself has chapters from beyond the grave which consist of haunting, soulful lyrics.
In the end, Ms. Parks’ Getting Mother’s Body is a highly-recommended change of pace for any reader, regardless of race or persuasion. If this, her first novel, is any indication, however, it won’t be the last time we are treated to such an adventure.