Study Guide

Lily Norene in Marked by Fire

By Joyce Carol Thomas

Lily Norene

Have you read up on Abyssinia as a character yet? You totally should before we dive into Lily Norene. Don't worry; we'll wait.

Okay, you back? Let's do this thing.

Poor Lily Norene has the dubious honor of presenting an alternative outcome for Abby's life (so it often goes with foils). These two start out with the same classic childhoods—you know, filled with playing and ice cream and all that good stuff—but later, right before they graduate from high school, Lily Norene marries a total turd of a man while Abby keeps her eyes on the prize and graduates with honors:

It was common knowledge that Willie Johnson beat his wife, Lily Norene. Sometimes he was more vicious than usual, and on those occasions she was left with another missing tooth, another scar, or some permanent disability like the twisted hand. The beatings also left her with more responsibility than she had before. In her fire years of marriage to the man, she bore him five children. (27.4)

Whoa. Lily Norene's early adult life stands in pretty stark contrast to Abby's, doesn't it? While Abby's studying with Mother Barker, Lily's barely staying alive. Importantly, the violence Lily Norene encounters isn't wholly different from the violence Abyssinia struggles against. Remember that Abby is also raped, and that for much of her life, Trembling Sally presents a looming (and real) threat of death. And yet Abby repeatedly rallies, while Lily Norene completely succumbs and feels trapped:

"You know, there are ways to stop him from beating you."

[…]

"Call the police, they look at you like you're some kind of old dog," Lily said.

"Have you tried that?"

"No. Winnie Mae told me about the time she tried talking to the law. They think you must like getting whipped."

[…]

"Maybe that's because nobody ever beat them," she told Lily. (27.7-13)

This exchange takes place between Abby and Lily Norene during one of Abby's house calls to tend to her friend's wounds after being beaten (again) by her husband. What becomes clear here is that Lily Norene's sense of entrapment in this abusive situation is the norm, not the exception—it's Abby's ability to repeatedly pick herself back up and regain her sense of integrity and value that is unusual, not the other way around. A woman called Winnie Mae suffers a similar plight to Lily's, and the cops won't do anything to help women in abusive situations.

Lily Norene doesn't fare well in this book—near the end, she dies of a stroke after years of abuse—but she does do an excellent job of illustrating just how much the odds were stacked against black women in this time. Everybody knows her husband beats her senseless, and nobody—herself included—knows how to help. Ugh.