Like a country quilt, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks's spellbinding first novel, Getting Mother's Body
, is pieced together from rags: short and slanted scraps of narrative recounted by various friends and members of the hard-luck Beede clan of Ector County, Texas. These sad, wily, bickering voices tell the story of Billy Beede--poor, unmarried, and pregnant--and her dead mother, the "hot and wild" blues singer, Willa Mae Beede, who may or may not have been laid to rest with a fortune of diamonds and pearls in her coffin. When a letter arrives announcing that a supermarket is being built on the ground where Willa Mae was buried, Billy determines to dig her up and get the jewels. But Willa Mae's embittered female lover, Dill Smiles, is just as intent on keeping the corpse in the ground. Deeper and richer than a typical quest novel, Getting Mother's Body
is also the story of an African-American family, of beauty winding like bright thread through long-held grudges, hopelessness, and greed. --Regina Marler
From Publishers Weekly
Parks, winner of the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for her play Topdog/Underdog, puts her dramatic skills to good use in this fluid, assured debut novel, the story of a sweaty road trip from Texas to Arizona in July 1963. When stubborn 16-year-old Billy Beede gets knocked up and jilted by her sweet-talking, coffin-salesman lover, she needs money for an abortion. Her wild mother, Willa Mae, died when Billy was 10, and Billy lives with her "childless churchless minister Uncle and one-legged church-hopping Aunt" in a mobile home behind their rural Texas gas station. Billy's only hope for serious cash is to dig up her mother's body from its grave in LaJunta, Ariz., where Willa Mae was buried wearing a diamond ring and a pearl necklace. That, at least, is the story told by Willa Mae's one-time lover, Dill, a six-foot-tall "bulldagger, dyke, lezzy, what-have-you." Billy steals Dill's truck and, together with her aunt and uncle, embarks on a trip to Arizona to find her mother's body, her mother's treasure and her mother's memory. With disgruntled Dill in hot pursuit (chauffeured by Billy's dogged suitor, Laz, misfit son of the local funeral parlor owner), the three travel through the racist Southwest, meeting up with relatives, friends and foes. Parks narrates her brief chapters from the point of view of different characters, giving each a distinctive voice; blues songs are interwoven with the text. Parks's influences are evident-among them Zora Neale Hurston and Faulkner's As I Lay Dying-but the novel's easy grace and infectious rhythms are all her own. Fueled by irresistible, infectious talk and prose that swings like speech, this novel begs (no surprise) to be read aloud.
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