Getting Mother's Body Themes

The main themes in Getting Mother's Body are motherhood, racism, and treasure and wealth.

  • Motherhood: Billy, who is pregnant, has a complicated relationship with her deceased mother, Willa Mae. After digging up Willa Mae's body, Billy is able to grieve and to accept her aunt June as a mother figure.
  • Racism: As a young black woman in the 1960s, Billy contends with racism, as do characters like Homer.
  • Treasure and wealth: A need for money motivates the characters as they go in search of the treasure rumored to be buried with Willa Mae's body. Billy uncovers symbolic treasure in the form of her relationships with June and Laz.


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Last Reviewed on March 18, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1002


Getting Mother's Body is defined by the overarching theme of motherhood. When Billy is introduced, she is pregnant and eager to become a mother, believing that Snipes will marry her and thus confer upon her the respectability her own mother never achieved. Billy's relationship with her own mother is a complex and difficult one: other people often remark that she is very similar to Willa Mae, but Billy rejects this idea, desperate not to repeat the mistakes of her own mother's life even as she, to the consternation of her family, sets off down the same path toward unwed motherhood. Once Billy realizes that Snipes has no intention of marrying her, she becomes fixated on the idea of aborting her child in order to escape the fate that met her mother—despite the fact that she has long decried the fact that Willa Mae died as a result of a botched abortion.

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At the point of Willa Mae's death, Billy declared, "Good riddance." But she is not rid of Willa Mae, whose specter haunts the story in the form of flashbacks and haunting songs from the perspective of the dead woman. Only when Billy digs up her mother's body and is confronted with the truth of her death is she finally able to vent her grief and lay Willa Mae's ghost to rest. In terms of motherhood, this also has other effects in the wider story. Not only is Billy able to accept that a good man, Laz Jackson, loves her and is willing to legitimize her own motherhood, she is also able to recognize that a would-be mother, June, has been in her life all along. June is a woman who is "missing" a piece, in physical terms—she has only one leg—but also in a spiritual and emotional sense, due to the fact that she is unable to have children. She has always tried hard with Billy, believing that if she and Teddy loved her as mothers and fathers love their children, then Billy would eventually become their daughter. This has never yet proven true, but over the course of the treasure hunt that results in the uncovering of Willa Mae, Billy and June come to a closer understanding of each other. When Billy refers to her unborn child as a "grandbaby" of June's, she is recognizing that "blood to blood" is not all that makes a family and that she has a mother in June after all.


The racism that typified American society in 1963 is a significant factor throughout the novel. As a young, unmarried black girl, Billy is in a more vulnerable situation than a white girl would be, as Teddy observes when he decides she cannot be allowed to travel to her mother's grave alone. As a black woman, she is already vulnerable to attack because of the relatively lesser value her life is accorded by society. As an unwed pregnant woman, these risks are massively multiplied.

The community in which Billy and the Jacksons live in Lincoln is almost entirely black. As such, when they arrive at Estelle's home, they are discomfited by the fact that it is in a majority white neighborhood. People in the homes around them twitch their curtains and stare at the car, and the group recognizes their fear—that this is a new family about to move in, thus lowering the value, as they see it, of the...

(The entire section contains 1002 words.)

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