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Escaping Beedism

starfish's picture

“People will talk. Let them talk. I can bear it. I am a Beede so I can bear the people talking…. I guess what Billy do or don’t do, or what she get or don’t get, is no more than just part of the plan” (51). So reflects Roosevelt Beede, accepting the decisions of his willful, pregnant, unmarried niece, Billy. Roosevelt’s stiff lipped, resigned response to his family’s luck is typical of the characters in Susan Lori Park’s novel. Throughout ‘Getting Mother’s Body’ the poor, Texan family comments on what it means to be a Beede, as they travel to Arizona to retrieve the remains of Billy’s mother and the jewels supposedly buried with her.

Indeed, it does seem for most of the novel that the characters will retain their fated hard luck. Willa Mae’s lover reveals early on that he took the jewels from her body. Roosevelt, an ex-preacher finds his church burned down, and, and Billy seems destined to follow her mother’s, dishonest, unhappy path. Then, at the end, the trajectory of the story shifts. Willa Mae is uncovered with a real diamond ring, and each of the characters finds what they have been looking for throughout the story. The surprising twist leads the reader to ask about the theme of inheritance in the novel. What keeps the character’s in the paths of their families, and how do they escape them? One answer is that inheritance of bad luck comes from following a self destructive path as the characters respond to their failed relationships with each other.

Billy’s character, with her parallel rejection and imitation of her mother has the most direct ties to the theme of inheritance in the novel. Notably, she is the only character who never mentions ‘Beedeism’ or refers to the inherited bad luck of her family. To the contrary, she maintains a defiant, forced optimism when it comes to her prospects of getting married or finding the money for an abortion. She rejects the idea of inheritance altogether, denying both the claim that she bears any resemblance to her mother as well as the possibility that the dead woman was buried with any real jewels. Yet, even as Billy claims she is “no Willa Mae”, she seemingly becomes increasingly like her as the novel continues. She adopts her mother’s tricks, learning to recognize the ways in which people can be taken advantage of, and occasionally stealing.

But, after Billy sees her mother’s uncovered remains, something in her changes. In the next chapter she accepts family inheritance for the first time in the novel.  “Folks take after they folks. That’s the law of nature” (257).  It is the confrontation of her mother and the acceptance of this principal that finally allows Billy to escape her mother’s shadow. An change was always within reach but until Billy comes to terms with her mother and discovers her ring she was unable to make it.

To all appearances Billy could choose not to follow in her mother’s footsteps. As Billy’s aunt June says “Willa Mae didn’t never amount to nothing”, but Billy has a talent at doing hair and could make a living if she wanted to. But she quit her job in a hair salon and dropped out of school even though she was a good student. Willa Mae was never married but Billy could marry her honest, middle class neighbor if she accepted him. But she continually rejects her chances at a better life. Instead she looks for happiness in the same self, destructive way her mother did, carrying on a relationship with dishonest Snipes and manipulating others to get what she wants. It is as if Billy is following her mother in order to confirm to herself that she is not like her. She refuses to learn from her mothers experience. She tells herself that unlike her mother she will be loved by a man like Snipes, and unlike her she will be able to raise the money for and have a safe abortion.

Billy is able to make her shift when she confronts her mother’s bones and comes to terms with them. Another character, Laz, remembers Billy crying at the end as she sits next to the grave. “She’s saying things that I don’t understand. Words threaded through with a long private string of goddamned yous, the kind of curses that’s said between mother and daughter, I guess” (253). Billy was angry with Willa Mae for dying and leaving her without guidance. She says at the end “The thing about not watching my mother get old is that I wasn’t never sure what I was gonna get, cause if you don’t got yr folks to look at… then you don’t got a good idea really of where you’re headed” (257). She believed that her mother went to the grave with only fake jewels, not leaving Billy anything of use for her as she becomes a woman. Once however, Billy learns her mother did have real jewels (some value in her legacy) she no longer feels the need to prove her separation from her and is able to live her own life In the final chapter she has decided to marry Laz, and no longer expresses regret at having a child.

Other character’s experiences reinforce the idea that making amends with family is part of the answer to escaping inherited bad luck. Roosevelt also experiences a dramatic change in fortune at the end of the novel, regaining his calling as a preacher and starting his own church. He says that he stopped hearing God after he asserted his dominance as a man over his wife and refused to move out to be with her family. But, at the end when he apologizes to June and suggests they go to California she tells him he sounds like her husband, the preacher. They decide not to go back to the gas station and Roosevelt starts work in a church of his own again.

Dill Smiles, Willa Mae’s lover, makes a transformation of her own when she, in a way, makes amends with Willa Mae. Dill narrates her imagination as she lays down on Willa’s grave. “I am a man, but an old man, and Willa Mae, six feet underneath the top of the ground, unfolds her hands from where I laid them across the top of her chest, and, with a smile, takes me in her arms” (244). In this scene Dill forgives Willa Mae for being unfaithful and finally allows her to be uncovered. Dill wanted Willa Mae left buried, partially so that it wouldn’t be discovered that he’d taken the jewels, but also because he wanted her to stay dead. He says he is glad she died and considers giving the Beedes the ring he took from her so that they will “leave her be” (243). After he forgives her though, he allows Willa Mae to be dug up and is no longer stuck defending her grave.

Inheritance is a “law of nature” as Billy says, but luck is not. Identity is inherited in a family through the member’s relationships to each other and the way to escape the negativity of this inheritance is to seek a fresh start with one another. But to make such a start we must be vulnerable, we must acknowledge what our relationship to another is and be open with them, but such an openness requires vulnerable honesty. Roosevelt had to apologize to June, Dill had to forgive Willa Mae, Billy had to cry at her grave.


Works Cited

Parks, Suzan-Lori. Getting Mother’s Body. New York: Random House, 2004.


Anne Dalke's picture

As usual, you do a very nice job of meticulous close reading, pulling out details from the text, including what’s absent there—for ex, you notice that Billy Beede “is the only character who never mentions ‘Beedeism’ or refers to the inherited bad luck of her family.” One spot where I’d have liked to see you spend a little bit more time explaining the quote you’re working with is when you say that it’s Billy’s “confrontation of her mother,” and the acceptance of the principal of family inheritance, “that finally allows Billy to escape her mother’s shadow,” to “come to terms with her mother.”  

In her essay, /oneworld/changing-our-story-2016/intertwined-minds-lori-parks-and-ozeki , Kat calls attention to a particular dimension of Billy Beede’s encounter with her mother’s body, by quoting Billy’s comment, “’When I see her bones I knew what we all knew, that we’s all gonna end up in a grave someday, but there’s stops in between there and now’ (257). This journey to dig up her mother’s grave was a self-realization for Billy. This encouraged her to live her life fully and happily.” That does seem an important moment: forced to acknowledge the inevitability of death, it seems as if Billy is provoked to seize control of her life, the pattern of which—she seems to realize @ that moment—is NOT inevitable, however much its end may be.

How we get from that realization to the comments you highlight--“Folks take after they folks. That’s the law of nature….not watching my mother get old…I wasn’t never sure what I was gonna get, cause if you don’t got yr folks to look at…then you don’t got a good idea really of where you’re headed”--is still not quite clear to me. You attribute this to Billy’s finding the diamond ring (or “some value in her legacy”), which enables her to “live her own life,” without having to “prove her separation.” Your argument is that we can escape inheriting our family’s “bad luck” by being vulnerable, open and honest with one another, and you end your paper with a succinct list of examples, though I’m not quite seeing how they connect with the body of the paper? Anyhow, I look forward to our talking all this through during your writing conference on Thursday.

You’ll also need to remind me then (sorry!) what we agreed to re: your deadlines for drafts and finished paper. Since I’m missing last week’s submission, I was surprised to see you presenting this week’s paper as if it is still a draft, especially since it really reads like a finished piece J
There’s also something a little wonky going on with the commas here—for us to review!

For this Friday, however, I’d like to nudge you to move on from these ideas, perhaps carry them forward into All Over Creation, or to pick another topic for discussing that novel. How does family inheritance, and the child’s need to break away from it, play out in Ozeki’s book? You’ve got several generations to deal with here, since you can see Yumi and Cass in relationship both to their parents and to their children. How much is inherited, how much made new, in those family stories? How are those patterns like and/or different from those in Getting Mother’s Body? What larger conclusions might you draw from the textual details you call attention to?

Or might you be curious about the relationship between “identity and environment” in the book--for example, about what effect the very different landscapes of Idaho and Hawaii have on the interactions among the characters?

Looking forward to finding out where you’ll head next!