Angela Alaimo O’DONNELL. Flannery O’Connor: Fiction Fired by Faith. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2015. pp. 138. $12.95 pb ISBN: 978-0-8146-3701-2. Reviewed by Dolores L. CHRISTIE, University Heights, OH 44118.
An excellent addition to the “People of God” series is this spiritual biography of Flannery O’Connor, arguably one of the foremost American Catholic authors of our time. This slim volume brings into focus the inner faith and growth of an author known primarily through her writings, both public and personal. Her brief life was one of “quiet ordinariness,” as the author notes, with no scandal or headline-grabbing events to bring her name to notoriety.
Mary Flattery O’Connor was raised in an Irish Catholic enclave in the largely Protestant and prejudiced south. “Flannery” was her mother’s maiden name. The identifiably Catholic “Mary” was excised from her written work, perhaps because “Mary O’Connor” was too plain a title for a serious author. More likely it was omitted as an indication of her growth beyond the “Savannah ghetto” of her early life. O’Donnell notes that when Flannery moved into a more cosmopolitan environment, she gradually developed a sense of herself as different from her non-religious peers. This difference was underlined sharply in the fiction she produced. She wrestled with the difficulty of building a credible bridge between her strong Catholic roots and the secular world that defined her educational experience.
Her religious tradition and practice were typical of the mid-century era; her writing was not. She attended Mass frequently and in later years she prayed the daily breviary. She saw herself as neither a preacher of Catholicism nor a secular author. Her bizarre and sometimes off-putting characters embody struggles born of weakness, sin, and serious searching. They are often portrayed as deaf to God’s call, but they are offered a moment of choice for the good. O’Connor viewed herself as artist duty bound to serve her craft. She left the work of evangelizing to evangelists, as she noted in an essay on Catholic novelists.
Her corpus is modest: two novels, many short stories, articles, some personal letters and journals. Her last novel was completed during her final years, when she suffered from the painful degenerative effects of lupus. She inherited the fatal disease which took her father’s life in his mid-forties.
One of the interesting facts O’Donnell details is O’Connor’s interest in birds. As a child she was fascinated with fowl, keeping a chicken as a trained pet. During her final illness she brought peacocks and hens to the family farm. She saw in the peacock’s glorious plumage a symbol for God−the “sun” of the feather as the “son” of God at the center of Christendom. Birds, and particularly the symbol-laden peacock, are featured in her writings.
Flannery was clearly a spiritually thoughtful woman. Her prayer life included more than traditional practices. It was an intimate conversation with God. She credited God for her incredible writing talent, yet was wary of forgetting from whom the talent came. The author tells us that Flannery “wrestled with pride” and feared she might lose her faith. Yet even in her thirteen years of suffering from lupus, she never stopped working, never felt sorry for herself, never doubted God’s love.Not merely because of the similar Irish surname, Professor O’Donnell is a fitting choice to write this biography. She herself is a poet and the director of Fordham’s Center for American Catholic Studies. Her skill is demonstrated by a well written and frank treatment of her subject−she mentions Flannery’s racism. It should be recommended reading as a companion piece for anyone who studies Flannery O’Connor’s work.