The King of the Birds: The Illustrated Story of Flannery O’Connor and Her Beloved Peacock
By Maria Popova
On the vast spectrum of great writers and their pets, Flannery O’Connor (March 25, 1925–August 3, 1964) falls on the odder side. An ardent fan of fowl, O’Connor began her avian collection at the age of five with a backward-walking chicken and went zealously from there, collecting more and fancier birds — turkeys, geese, pheasants, quail, mallard ducks, Japanese silky bantams. Perhaps she saw part of herself in these feathered creatures — she would later describe her young self as “a pigeon-toed child with a receding chin and a you-leave-me-alone-or-I’ll-bite-you complex.” Eventually, upon seeing a newspaper ad for the king of all birds, O’Connor had to have this crowning curio of her collection — she mail-ordered four peacocks, which later came to populate her fiction.
Indeed, the appreciation of birds was for O’Connor a special creative capacity, which sprang from the same source as her literary sensibility. In a sentiment analogous to her assertion that art “is only for those who are willing to undergo the effort needed to understand it,” she wrote in a 1961 essay about her life with peacocks:
Many people, I have found, are congenitally unable to appreciate the sight of a peacock. Once or twice I have been asked what the peacock is “good for” — a question which gets no answer from me because it deserves none.
In The King of the Birds (public library), writer Acree Graham Macam and illustrator Natalie Nelson bring to life O’Connor’s unusual and endearing fancy of fowl in a story about her ill-behaved peacock, her efforts to get him to display his tail, and the unplanned consequences of succeeding.
As little Flannery tries over and over to get her prized fowl to perform the very act for which she recruited him, a theme central to O’Connor’s fiction emerges — the notion that foibles lurk underneath even the handsomest exteriors and that forgiveness for those foibles is the most sanctifying and necessary of all human gifts.
Nelson’s distinctive mixed-media art, fusing illustration with archival photographs, is the perfect visual counterpart to this imaginative interpretation of the facts of O’Connor’s life.
It all started with a chicken who could walk backwards and forwards.
A newspaperman came from New York to see the chicken, and Flannery became famous.
But not long after, people forgot about Flannery. And she began to feel that life was a little too quiet.
More birds would do the trick. She collected her savings and bought one of every type she could find.
When Flannery eventually sets her heart on a peacock — who is “more exciting than a thousand birds” — she persuades her mother by doing extra chores for a week.
She mail-orders this fanciest fowl, picks him up at the train station, and promptly appoints him king of her avian kingdom.
But the peacock finds the scene “a little too quiet” and proceeds to shy away from his chief duty — the display of his magnificent tail. To encourage him, Flannery feeds him flowers, throws him a party, lets him play in the fig tree, leads a parade in his honor — all to no avail.
One night, a terrible wailing noise awakens her and she knows instantly — we aren’t told how, suggesting either O’Connor’s precociousness or the discomfort of detailing the biology of reproduction in a children’s book — that her peacock is crying for a mate. That afternoon, Flannery supplies her king with a queen, and his tail immediately rises to its evolutionary purpose.
At first, to everyone’s exasperation, the queen seems more interested in the rocks than in the king.
But after a courtship propelled by the most glorious plumage, the royal couple jointly solve the quietude problem of the pen.
Complement The King of the Birds with the charming picture-book about Jane Goodall’s early life and the illustrated story of how Henri Matisse’s childhood shaped his creative legacy, then revisit O’Connor on art, integrity, and the writer’s responsibility to her talent, the difference between belief and faith, her little-known cartoons, and this rare recording of her reading “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”
Illustrations © Natalie Nelson, courtesy of Groundwood Books; photographs by Maria Popova
Published November 3, 2016