Blue. The color of water. The color of the sky. Bright and lively but also melancholic and mysterious. The color of peacock and robin eggs. The color of Flannery O’Connor’s eyes. The color of the endpaper of Amy Alznauer’s and Ping Zhu’s wondrous book, The Strange Birds of Flannery O’Connor: A Life.
When I opened this picture book with my six-month-old daughter, the first thing I felt was that I was swimming in color, in an ocean of potential possibilities. Materially the book is large, even for a picture book, my daughter wanted to grab it, take it into her little hands, but it was too much. This is good and as it should be. For Flannery O’Connor, her life, imagination, and stories are large, or as she wrote, sometimes “you have to make your vision apparent by shock – to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”
And while perhaps Alznauer and Zhu’s book isn’t startling in the way O’Connor thought her work was, it certainly reorients you. Like little Flannery, the reader is enveloped by the spaces within these pages. Swathes of green, reds, yellow and blue. We are both in them, and also outside of them, in that often as a reader, we seem to be dwelling in the very mind of Flannery O’Connor herself. Certainly the beautiful paintings in this book, but also the beautiful words vibrate with energy. The pages reveal the vibrancy of this strange woman from Georgia.
We often imagine O’Connor only as the woman surrounded by peacocks, immersed in writing, and walking with her aluminum crutches. But Alznauer and Zhu begin in a different place and give us a window into her childhood before they lead us into her adulthood. It is a childhood that was filled with wonder, with oddities, with joys, with sadness, with humor, with sassiness. The young Flannery draws with her crayons fiercely, constantly, trying to capture the world around her — particularly chickens. She is tenacious, collecting birds, desiring the oddest fowl she can find. We see her mourn the loss of her beloved father, who always carried the drawing she made for him of “a fat turkey squatting on the ground and a stick-figure child sailing overhead.” We also see her begin to deal with the illness that will one day take her life, as she sits melancholically in her bedroom, lying on her bed with her “pigeon toes,” staring.
Alznauer traces Flannery’s attention to the odd to her childhood, but in particular, an experience of fame: “In that brief moment of fame, Flannery had a revelation. People didn’t want to see any old chicken; they wanted a weird one. There was something about strangeness that made people sit up and look.” This is one of my favorite passages and also favorite illustration spreads in the whole book. In this passage, the line between Alznauer and O’Connor fades, and for a moment it’s as if Flannery the woman is telling us about Flannery the girl.
There are many things that have stayed with me after my first few readings of this book. Perhaps the two that have left me pondering, the two which I hope I can pass on to my daughter are – the importance of staring and the beauty enmeshed in suffering.
From the first page, Flannery is staring. Staring at everything. At chickens, at her parents, at the stars, at her toes, at an altar, at the darkness and sadness, at Sr. Consolata and her mother, at the old and the young, at the beautiful and the strange. Flannery stares – not to be nosy, not to gossip, or intrude – she stares in order to wonder at the world, to understand the workings of man, to disentangle the strangeness and glory of reality, to know and to love, to revel and to rest.
Too often we find we cannot do this. We do not give ourselves time to stare, to know and be known, to love, as Pushkin writes, “the sticky green leaves,” as expressing the mystery of it all. We are restless, with restless hearts. Perhaps Flannery shows us that while this restlessness and desire might sometimes ail us, the balm for this is to pause and stare and take in all that is around us. To look for grace peeking through, even in the odd, even in sorrow, even in pain. If we take time to stare, and let our restless heart sit, revelations abound.
Throughout her life Flannery O’Connor encountered and experienced pain and sorrow. But as is clear in her own writing and storytelling, and as Alznauer voices, she had an innate sense for the complexity of these moments: “She felt her heart filling up with grief but even more with wonder. How strange to find something large and beautiful rushing in with all that sadness.” And here lies the mystery of Flannery O’Connor, and also one of the great mysteries of being. How do we as humans learn to move in a world that is burdened, that is violent, that is unjust, and that is cruel. How are we to live as beings that, as St. Augustine writes, “carry our mortality about with us?” Alznauer and Zhu show us Flannery in the midst of great loss. She turns to her faith, but she also turns “with a new ferocity” to writing. And she “took to staring.” Alznauer writes, “If she studied something hard enough, Flannery found, she could always discover some hidden strangeness, making it beautiful and funny and sad all at the same time.”
Flannery O’Connor’s method of living was to stare down reality, and to keep on staring and writing her whole life. But also to stare quietly, receptively. So I hope that you too will pick up this book, and that you might stare, at birds and people, at leaves and fireflies. And I also hope that even in the midst of sadness and pain you might await that “large and beautiful rushing in” even amidst it all.
The Strange Birds of Flannery O’Connor is available for purchase at Enchanted Lion Books at the first link in this article, or at other independent booksellers such as Women and Children First, or Bookshop.org
Jess Sweeney is Managing Director of the Ars Vivendi Arts Initiative for the Collegium Institute for Catholic Thought & Culture as well as the founder of Commonplace Living. She completed her M.A. in Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas and met her husband at a week-long seminar exploring Genealogies of Modernity. They now have a little 6 month old daughter who, amongst many things, enjoys gazing at the books and salon walls in their West Philly apartment. She enjoys finding time to paint with gouache, explore new children’s books, and write about art history. Find her on Instagram: @commonplaceliving