Getting Mother's Body

by Suzan-Lori Parks

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Getting Mother's Body Characters

The main characters in Getting Mother's Body include Billy Beede, Willa Mae Beede, Dill Smiles, and Laz Jackson.

  • Billy Beede, the novel's protagonist, is a sixteen-year-old black girl living in Lincoln, Texas. Five months pregnant and unmarried, she has led a difficult life.
  • Willa Mae Beede was Billy's mother and a con artist. Though dead, she appears throughout the novel, singing spirituals.
  • Dill Smiles is Willa Mae's former lover. She is a prickly character who harbors complicated feelings toward Billy and Willa Mae.
  • Laz Jackson is a young man who has always loved Billy from afar. He follows Billy to Arizona along with Dill and ultimately marries Billy.


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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 945

Billy Beede

The protagonist of the story, Billy Beede, is a sixteen-year-old black girl navigating life in Lincoln in 1963. She is unmarried and pregnant, having been lied to her by her boyfriend, Snipes, who is actually already married. Billy has lived a difficult life: she is the illegitimate child of Willa Mae, who died following a failed abortion and whom Billy always calls by her first name. Billy speaks poorly of her mother; it seems that she resents the lack of attention paid to her by Willa Mae, and Willa Mae's former partner Dill remarks that Billy declared "good riddance!" upon her mother's death. However, other characters frequently observe similarities between Billy and her mother. Both are resourceful and able to manipulate others to their own ends. Billy takes a pragmatic approach to digging up her mother's body for financial gain, but when she is faced with the spectacle of the corpse itself, she is finally able to express the grief, love, and loss she truly feels. 

Willa Mae Beede

Willa Mae Beede, Billy's mother, is already dead at the beginning of the story but appears throughout, expressing herself through the medium of spiritual-type songs. Evidently an unhappy person, Willa Mae was "fast" and treated those around her with abandon. A hustler and con artist, she spent time in prison and was able to manipulate and swindle most people with whom she came into contact. One of her most significant relationships was with Dill Smiles, who was instantly captivated by her, but Willa Mae conducted affairs with men and became pregnant at least twice during this relationship. The shadow of Willa Mae, and the effects she has had emotionally on both Billy and Dill, hangs heavily over the novel, even though Willa Mae herself is only present as a corpse. 

Dill Smiles

Described by others as a "bulldagger," Dill Smiles is perceived by others as a mannish lesbian but actually makes a concerted effort to present herself as a man and did not reveal her true physical sex to Willa Mae for many months. She is defensive and prickly, but the warmth of her character is expressed through her fondness for the pigs she rears, whom she allows to sleep in her bed. She has a fraught relationship with Billy Beede, whom she sees as very similar to her mother, Willa Mae. Dill's relationship with Willa Mae's memory is also complicated. She feels hatred for her, but also the aftermath of deep love, as indicated by the tableau toward the end of the book when she stretches out on Willa Mae's grave, as if "topping her woman" for a final time.

Clifford/Clifton Snipes

Clifford Snipes is a married man, but he conceals this fact from Billy in order to seduce her. He continues to see Billy until she is five months pregnant, at which point he promises to marry her. His perspective is given only briefly, but it is clear that Snipes has a habit of infidelity and even of causing innocent girls to become "in the family way" before abandoning them. He represents a broken dream of escape for Billy.

Aunt June and Uncle “Teddy” Roosevelt

June and Teddy have brought Billy up from the age of ten, when her mother died. Hardworking people, they are themselves childless and are keenly aware of the many advantages which have been denied to Billy in life. Aunt June is missing a physical part of herself—her leg—but an emotional part of her, too, is missing due to her longing for a child. Her husband, Teddy, is protective of both his wife...

(This entire section contains 945 words.)

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and their niece, insisting on accompanying her to Arizona due to a keen awareness of the dangers facing a young, pregnant black woman.

Mr. and Mrs. Jackson

Mr. and Mrs. Jackson own two fixtures of life in Lincoln: the funeral parlor and the formalwear store. On her first visit to the formalwear store, Billy is able to use her wiles and charm to convince Mrs. Jackson to take pity on her and sell her a wedding dress at a low price. However, when she returns to the store to return the dress, Mr. Jackson's business-mindedness prevails, and Billy is infuriated when she does not get her way. 

Laz Jackson 

Laz Jackson is Mr. and Mrs. Jackson's youngest son. He is considered to be lacking by his parents and others in town for the greater part of the book; he harbors a hope of being with Billy that seems to be futile. However, the sweetness of his character is revealed through his conversations with Dill, in which he asks what it is like to be a "real man," and at the end of the story he provides the security Billy has always lacked in her life, in the form of money, marriage, and dedication. 

Homer Beede

The child of a well-to-do member of the Beede family, Estelle, Homer is a young black man moving in a very different echelon of society from Billy. He attends college, is invested in the Civil Rights movement, and seems to represent the changing nature of black life in America. However, despite his aspirations, he is not immune to police violence; he also shows himself to be both greedy and sexually aggressive. Although he may have money, he is not a better man than Laz Jackson.

Candy Napoleon

Dill's mother, Candy Napoleon, owns a motel, on the grounds of which Dill buried Willa Mae Beede when she died. Candy is a larger-than-life figure who seems to love her daughter while struggling to understand her. Her younger daughter, Even, remains at home with her at the motel and is a promiscuous young woman.