by Catherine Marshall

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Catherine Marshall’s Christy is a well-researched, in-depth portrayal of the highlanders of southern Appalachia and their Scottish forebears. The Appalachian mountain dialect, descriptions of music and musical instruments, superstitions and folkways—all bear the stamp of authenticity. The novel’s audience is not confined to juveniles and young adults, but the book appeals to this age group, especially since the protagonist is a young woman in her first solitary confrontation with adult issues. The issues treated are a timeless series of “firsts”: living away from home for the first time, facing the challenges of a first job, developing a personal identity, testing inherited beliefs, enduring the first close encounter with illness and death, and falling in love. Christy’s rites of passage are the major theme of the novel.

In telling her mother’s story, Marshall describes a classic coming-of-age pattern for young Christian women: An idealistic young woman of Christian beliefs answers a lofty call to serve humanity; she emerges at the end of the experience with idealism intact but well-tempered by a large dose of reality. After nearly a year of trial by various ordeals, she has tested her inherited beliefs, sorted them out, and claimed them as her own. This process, the discovery of the self, forms part of the passage into adulthood for every young person; Marshall portrays it with acute insight and sensitivity.

Christianity gleams as a bright thread throughout this novel, which is permeated by the author’s deeply held religious beliefs. The invitation to examine those beliefs is presented to the reader with grace and without pressure through the actions and reactions of the novel’s young protagonist. In addition, Marshall has used another of the novel’s major characters to present her beliefs by setting out the Christian lifestyle in the words and actions of Alice Henderson, whose quiet strength steadies Christy throughout her tumultuous year in the Cove.

Friendship forms a second bright thread in Christy. With Fairlight Spencer, Christy experiences her first adult friendship—not dependent on similar backgrounds or similar intellect, but upon a calling together of similar souls. Christy’s love for Fairlight, a far different relationship from those of her childhood, makes earlier friendships seem shallow in comparison. Fairlight’s sudden and untimely death from typhoid forces Christy into her first confrontation with handling the loss of a beloved peer, causing her to question even God’s love.

The importance of education is a third bright thread in the tapestry of Christy’s experience. Apart from the role that education plays in the plot structure, Marshall makes a real attempt to describe the role of education in bettering the lives and circumstances of individuals in the poverty-stricken pockets of southern Appalachia. The novel describes the impact of learning to read, especially by adults, in enthusiastic detail; the liberating effect of literacy stands side by side with the sobering portrait of the tremendous hold of superstition and folkways over the unschooled mountain people.

Marshall uses illness and death as a bleak fourth thread to bring Christy to its gripping climax. A typhoid epidemic erupts in the Cove, spread by ordinary houseflies, outdoor privies, and the resulting impure water from springs used for drinking and cooking. The epidemic decimates the population of the Cove, turns the mission house into a makeshift hospital, claims Fairlight and several adults and students, and nearly kills Christy. The searing description of mountain homes with no inside plumbing, no means of sterilizing water, food, and utensils; of the proud mountaineers in their reluctance to ask for help until desperation sets in; and of the unnecessary deaths caused by ignorance and lack of resources sets the scene in which Christy contracts typhoid and almost dies.

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Critical Context