Faith and the Good Thing works on several levels simultaneously. At times a realistic account of the experiences endured by African Americans moving from the rural South to the urban North, it is also a folk fable concerning mythic figures such as the Swamp Woman, a combination of philosopher and voodoo priestess. The novel is also, in part, a philosophical inquiry into the nature of physical and spiritual reality and human personality. Finally, it is an adventurous narrative that follows the travels and trials of its title character.
The novel begins when Faith Cross is commanded by her dying mother: “Girl, you get yourself a good thing.” Puzzled, Faith consults the Swamp Woman, incredibly ancient and eerie, who orders Faith to go to Chicago but refuses to reveal just what the good thing will be.
In fact, there seems to be little good in Chicago, where Faith quickly sinks into a life of prostitution and drugs, an episode that the novel describes in a surreal combination of reality and illusion. Here, Johnson displays his ability to combine black folk idioms with rich, evocative language.
Faith is rescued, after a fashion, through her marriage to Isaac Maxwell, a young black reporter for a Chicago newspaper. Maxwell, who speaks constantly of the will to power and who fancies himself a dominant personality, is a portrait of the ineffectual black intellectual cut off from his own heritage and not fully accepted by the white culture. Although Faith’s material wants are satisfied, Maxwell cannot meet her spiritual needs, and her life remains barren and unfulfilled. When she reveals her past to Maxwell, the marriage disintegrates, and Faith is eventually murdered by a former lover. In the novel’s ending, Faith’s spirit returns to Georgia, where it exchanges places with the Swamp Woman.
Faith and the Good Thing was Johnson’s first published novel, although he had written six others previously. He credits Gardner with providing him with much of the discipline and insight required to construct the work, but the themes, characters, and approach are clearly those of its author.