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A letter to Suzan Lori-Parks

KatarinaKF's picture

Dear Ms. Lori-Parks, 

My name is Katarina Karris-Flores and I am a First Year at Bryn Mawr College. I just finished reading your novel "Getting Mother's Body". Your style of writing truly makes the reader think thoroughly about the messages you are conveying. Although for me, it was difficult to find the messages, especially hidden in Willa Mae's songs. Some of the songs had a very deep analytical message while I was struggling to find the messages of others. What really intrigued me was that you included Willa Mae's songs either before or after Billy Beede's parts. This made me think. Why wouldn't you include them before or after another character's part? Then I read through the book once again and noticed that her songs deal with situations that Billy is in. I believe the purpose of including Willa Mae's songs was to highlight similarities between experiences dealt with Billy and Willa Mae. 

I imagined each part of your novel as scenes of a play. I would see each character travel through different scenes or Willa Mae singing her songs. It was interesting though, because whenever I imagined Willa Mae singing, she was alive and she was singing to Billy. It was as if she was giving Billy advice.  

Throughout the novel, it is stated that Willa Mae was known to take advantage of people, especially men. She could get what she wanted by identifying people's Holes. On pages 30-31, Willa Mae tells us what a Hole truly is. She defines a Hole as a "Soft spot, sweet spot, opening..." (30). This reminded me of Holes as a person's desire or craving. "To get the best of a situation you gotta know a man's Hole" (31) and that is exactly how Willa Mae lured men and other people into giving her what she wanted.  

It was also interesting to read how "A man could have a Hole just about anywheres..." (31) and how Willa Mae found these holes for her benefit. Throughout Willa Mae's analysis, she talks as if she has dug up these holes in people, Holes that people never thought they had. For example, "You offer a person with a Hole in the head some knowledge and they gonna be in yr pocket cause you done gived him the opportunity to taste what he craves" (31). At times I think Willa Mae regretted when she dug too deep of a Hole that made her partner crave things that she could not bestow. 

Like mother like daughter, Billy also learned to identify a person's Hole to get her way. For instance, on page 27, Billy convinced Mrs. Jackson into lowering the price of a wedding dress. Billy wanted the expensive wedding dress and The Hole helped her get it. Billy states that she "never seen one (a Hole). Until Now" (27). "Words shape theirselves in my mouth and I start talking without thinking of what I need to say. It's like The Hole shapes the words for me and I don't got to think or nothing". As you know, Billy ended up with "… a hundred-thirty-dollar dress and a pair of twenty-dollar shoes off of Mrs. Jackson for sixty-three dollars" (29) all thanks to her the Hole and her mother.  

 Another point that my classmates and I found was a thought-provoking observation after analyzing "Big Hole Blues". We knew that Willa Mae dug many Holes. But what we realized that the song was about someone digging a hole for Willa Mae. My classmates and I believe the digger to be Dill, which I think is completely true. Willa Mae sings, "My man is digging in my dirt, Digging a big hole just for me" (30), "my man" meaning Dill and "a big hole just for me" could either mean Willa Mae's grave that Dill dug or Willa Mae's Hole. Then she sings, "He says the hole he's digging is hole enough for two. He says he'll put me down there in it And put my boyfriend in it too" (30). We believed this hole for two was meant for Willa Mae and her suitors because Dill was jealous of the sexual relations that she was having with these men. Finally, in the last verse she sings, "He says he's just pulling my leg, but I got to play it safe. I done packed up all my clothes, I'm gonna leave this big old holey place" (30). When she sings that "He's just pulling my leg" (30), I think she is implying that Dill was lying about his jealously of Willa Mae's other men. And when she talks about leaving, I think she is foreshadowing when Dill helped dig her up to move her body.  

 As I reflect, Willa Mae's song about Holes was intended to help Billy understand that they both have a gift for identifying people's soft spots. Her mother was helping Billy understand that her gift can benefit her by getting what she wants from the world.  

However, not all the songs had an attached analysis to it. There are some songs that I was confused as to why they were included. For example her very last song on page 255,

"Don't the Great Wheel keep rolling along.

Don't the Great Wheel keep rolling along.

I stopping in yr town this morning,

But tonight, this gal, she's gotta be gone.

Don't the Great Wheel keep rolling right along" (255).


            At first I was confused because I was not exactly sure who the “Great Wheel” signifies. Then I read the Billy Beede’s chapter after this song and it discusses the life after she dug up her mother’s body. Billy did not end up like her mother in the sense that she had a husband who loved and cared for her very much and started a family. I think that the Great Wheel is Billy. “… keep rolling along” (255) signifies how she continues to live the life she wants to live, but with some aspects of her mother in it. In a way, Billy has gotten her mother’s body. Physically, more specifically when she was pregnant. And mentally, as she uses her mother’s mindset to encounter situations. I think that if it wasn’t her mother’s influence and tricks, Billy would have never found a way to continue her journey to retrieve her mother’s body. Thank goodness for the Ring Trick!

            The way you write reminds me of a puzzle. You started your novel with the main idea but pieces of it were missing. As the reader, you have to keep reading in order find all of the missing components. After dissecting your work, I can now see all of your hidden messages come to light.

Thank you for creating a wonderful piece of literature! I truly enjoyed reading it.  


Katarina Karris-Flores




Anne Dalke's picture

I’m liking your experimenting here with writing in the form of a letter to the author; let’s talk a little bit about what that gets you…? You don’t end, for instance, with a question for her, but rather w/ the claim that you’ve solved all the puzzles she set for you…so: why a letter (which implies a response? But you’re not asking for one….?)

Your description of imagining each part of the novel as “scenes of a play” also makes me question why Parks made it a novel: what does that form “get” her, and give us as readers, that a play wouldn’t? I love your imagining Willa May singing to her daughter, giving her advice…though as you say, that advice is pretty oblique, not straight-up…

You’ll be delighted to know, btw, that Parks brought a small guitar to her Q&A with upperclassfolk last Thursday afternoon, and actually played us a couple of songs…

That “Great Wheel” which “keeps rolling along” is an effective  image of both repetition and progress--Billy as both like-and-different from Willa—all rolled up into one motion!

This piece is largely an account of a series of things you found “interesting.” Let’s talk together this week about how you can re-shape it into an essay that is centered around the development of an idea, a problem, a puzzle still-to-be solved. What questions do you have remaining? Did Parks say anything on Thursday night that intrigued or puzzled you? (How about her saying that finding someone’s hole is “not necessarily bad: just active listening. You can enter, make an impression, be near them. Get to know them, close to them”?)

Looking forward to seeing where you can go with this,