On the left is “Prince of Peace” by artist Harry Anderson; on the right, Miss Flannery O’Connor
I wanted to say a word about Victoria Branham, the main character of my second novel The Prophet of Shattuck Avenue. Much of what drives the character of Victoria was influenced by the writing of Flannery O’Connor. As a nod to Miss O’Connor, I mention her in the book. At the beginning of Chapter 12, Victoria is having breakfast with her brother when the following exchange takes place…
Victoria drank the last of her coffee then set down the cup. “No, that’s the thing. Since my early adolescence the dreams have been few and far between. There was some resurgence of them when I was doing research for my book. You know, the one about speaking in tongues?”
Mark squinted a bit, then nodded. “I remember. Whatever possessed you to write about that stuff anyway?”
Victoria shrugged, “I don’t know. It was a way of working though some issues from the past. Plus I genuinely found it intriguing. I guess the whole Jesus thing is still hidden in my head like a stinger.”
Mark gave his sister a blank look, “hidden in your head like a stinger?”
He continued to stare.
“You mean to tell me they let you through Georgetown without knowing who Flannery O’Connor is?”
“That was law school, Vicky. I wasn’t there to study Jesus or stingers.”
Victoria smiled and took a bite of toast. “Anyway, I think being around religious or emotional fervor triggers it … the dreams I mean.”
The reference to Flannery O’Connor comes from her novel Wise Blood where she writes…
His grandfather had been a circuit preacher, a waspish old man who had ridden over three counties with Jesus hidden in his head like a stinger.
What an unusual image … “Jesus hidden in his head like a stinger.” Like some sort of small foreign object lodged in to the back of the brain—controlling the thoughts and driving one on. Yet, I think anyone who has been involved in fundamentalism will understand.
A couple of pages later, through the mind of her character Hazel Motes, O’Connor expands on this caricature of Jesus…
He [Jesus] would chase him all over the waters of sin! …That boy had been redeemed and Jesus wasn’t going to leave him ever. Jesus would never let him forget he was redeemed. …Jesus would have him in the end.
…Later he saw Jesus move from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he was not sure of his footing, where he might be walking on the water and not know it and then suddenly know it and drown.
Here, I envision Jesus growing into a giant figure, walking over oceans and across continents in pursuit of Hazel.
When I was a child, my grandparents had this picture of a giant Jesus knocking on the front of the United Nations building in New York City. That’s the figure I picture … stomping across Siberia and the Aleutian chain, through Canada and right down to Hazel’s train car as it rattles through the American south.
The imagination of the reader is indeed an interesting thing 🙂
In my new book, I try to employ some of O’Connor’s strategy to get across the idea of what she calls “the inescapable Jesus.” I once wrote a paper on O’Connor in graduate school that discusses this idea. It began like this…
In the stories of Flannery O’Connor there runs a thread of ambiguity towards fundamentalist Christianity, the salvation experience, and the grip that Holy Spirit has on the mind of the believer. While through her characters she seems to be mocking this hard dogmatic world, Miss O’Connor, at the same time, gives credence to the mystical penetration of God that goes deep into the soul of the faithful: a claim upon the heart that cannot be shaken or undone, regardless of how hard one may try to do so.
This is what I try to leverage in the character of Victoria—a well-educated woman who long ago broke with the beliefs of her rural Pentecostal upbringing, yet who can’t shake everything entirely. As I conclude in my essay…
There is an assent given in these [O’Connor’s] writings to there being a power in the beliefs of the Motes and the Tarwaters of the world. A power that is unshakable. A power that, like a fungus, only spreads when someone tries to stamp it out. A firebrand that sears the heart, leaving a scar that is as unchangeable as the soul itself.
A little heavy perhaps, but I was 28 at the time. Nevertheless, important to the story of Prophet of Shattuck Avenue is that tilled soil of Victoria’s past—a condition that leads her to reopen spiritual eyes that never really lost their sight but have only been closed for a season.
For further reading…
My aforementioned graduate school essay