Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Fiesty Flannery: A Visit to the Author's Childhood Home

In college, my friend Amy and I were shameless Flannery O'Connor groupies. 

We were fellow writers and students at a midwest Bible college. In our Creative Writing course, the professor introduced us to many authors we had never read - but Flannery quickly became our favorite.

Her characters were unexpected: disturbing, grotesque, and larger-than-life. Yet they were also ordinary - the type of people you might encounter at your local WalMart. They were overweight, loud-mouthed, some suffered deformities, others were drifters. They spoke crassly, and then (often in the same breath) they would speak about God.

As she said so well, "The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it."

We had never read faith stories like these. Flannery O'Connor's stories were not the sanctified, made-for-tv Christian-novels we had grown up on by authors like Grace Livingston Hill or Janette Oke. These were rough and tumble, edgy, almost obscene. Yet, they felt real because they pushed hard at the core center of our beliefs.

The other thing we noticed is that her stories were marked by violence. A gunshot stifles an old woman. A book is thrown across a crowded doctor's waiting room squarely knocking into the forehead of an obnoxious talker. Flannery doesn't just speak truth, she smacks you in the face with it.

I loved that then. I still do.

Before we went to Savannah, Georgia, I gave my book of Flannery's Collected Stories to my daughter. Read one of these, I urged her, bookmarking two of my favorites: "A Good Man is Hard to Find" and "Revelation." And she did. 

"Interesting," she said when she was done, raising her eyebrows with a curious look on her face. I plopped on the edge of her bed, and we talked about that annoying grandmother, the disturbing Misfit and his memorable last line: "She would of been a good woman, if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life."

Sabrina went along with me to visit Flannery's childhood home. How wonderful it is to walk where one of your favorite author's walked. Her home is next door to her wealthy aunt's mansion in Savannah, Georgia. It is simple and period-correct...a front visitor's parlour where they have her baby buggy - complete with her initials MFO (I never knew before that Mary was her true first name).

They have a collection of her childhood books. In the front leaf of a book of fairytales, the young Mary Flannery offered her critique. "I did not like this book." Upstairs is a tiny bathroom. Our guide told us Mary would sit on the toilet, and make her young girlfriends get in the tub. Then she would read stories to her captive audience. One little girl left crying, asking her parents not to maker her return. 

She left this home in her early teens when her father accepted a job near Atlanta. At age 15, she lost her dad to complications of lupus, a disease that would later take her own life at age 39. She was so young when she died, 10 years younger than I am now.

She studied at the University of Iowa. She published two novels and many short stories. She inspired Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits. Flannery, as she was later called, never married. She was pigeon-toed and an only child. She was fiercely opinionated and darkly religious. 

Nothing about Flannery was easy or calm. She embodies sharp angles and unanswerable questions - I love that she challenges to think hard about our faith. As she said, "All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful."

Her dark sense of humor sometimes makes me gulp with laughter: "She could never be a saint," quips Flannery, "but she thought she could be a martyr if they killed her quick."

Thank you, fierce Flannery for sharing your view of the world with us. I will treasure this moment where our paths intersected - even though we were decades apart.

If you are in Savannah, take a few moments to visit her childhood home:

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