Christy

by Catherine Marshall

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Christy, in a prologue and forty-six chapters, recounts eleven months in the life of naïve, untried nineteen-year-old Christy Huddleston. Through a first-person narrator, Catherine Marshall has set out a young woman’s coming-of-age, the struggles and triumphs of her first year on her own.

In the novel’s prologue, Marshall explains that her purpose is to describe a pivotal year in her mother’s life. The facts are true; the characters are drawn from real people, and the locale is identical to that of her mother’s youth—only names are altered. Without its prologue, Christy is fiction—with it, Christy takes on the reality of a biographical account. The straightforward narrative unfolds through the eyes of the nineteen-year-old protagonist. With her parents’ reluctant consent, Christy responds to a call for volunteers to teach school in the remote mountains of Tennessee. Although no one greets Christy at the railroad station when she arrives, she finds her own way to her destination of Cutter Gap. When she finally reaches the Cove, she discovers that the man sent to meet her train has been seriously injured on his way there and she witnesses a crude surgical operation under primitive conditions that saves his life. Christy moves into the mission house under the watchful eye of Alice Henderson, the Quaker missionary-teacher in charge of Cutter Gap school, where Christy discovers that she is expected to teach sixty-seven children, ranging in age from three to seventeen, in a one-room church building with no running water and heated only by a pot-bellied stove. After her first few days, Christy falls prey to discouragement and finds herself unsure of her ability to live and teach in the harsh conditions of Cutter Gap, where the students are unwashed, foul-smelling, and unkempt—some with their underclothing sewed on for the winter. With few textbooks, no blackboards, and no writing materials, Christy has only her native ability and intuition upon which to draw.

Alice Henderson, in her quiet Quaker manner, explains that Christy must find within herself the strength that God will provide to meet her challenges. As Christy overcomes her initial fears, she wins over her students. With the school year well advanced, and at their request, she also begins to teach some of the mothers to read. In doing so, she makes fast friends with Fairlight Spencer and Opal McHone, each of whom are important in different ways to Christy’s passage into adulthood. Opal McHone’s husband, Tom, is murdered in a senseless blockade feud, and the beautiful Fairlight falls victim to a typhoid epidemic and dies. After weeks of nursing typhoid patients, Christy contracts the dreaded fever herself and recovers after a near-death experience.

Threaded through the narrative are the stories of two very different men, the preacher and the doctor, both of whom love Christy. Their competing loves, along with various events, births, and deaths among the people she has come to love deeply, place her faith in a fiery cauldron from which it emerges strong and whole.

Literary Techniques

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Marshall effectively uses a number of techniques to convincingly portray the daily life and heritage of the mountain community of Eastern Tennessee. Throughout the novel, she authentically reproduces the speech patterns and the idiomatic expressions of the mountaineers. She also includes examples of their cultural heritage such as selections from their folk ballads and tall tales. Many of the customs of mountain society are described, those pertaining to daily life as well as the traditions of mountain weddings and funerals that are unique expressions of the heritage of the people. Several stories from the family...

(This entire section contains 338 words.)

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histories of the characters such as Neil MacNeil are included to explain the reason behind the original emigration of the ancestors of the mountaineers and their motivation for choosing the mountains of Eastern Tennessee for settlement.

The culture heritage of Alice Henderson, Quaker missionary, is revealed to the reader in a similar manner. Through the use of the Quaker speech idiom and theological expressions which are important to Friends, Marshall helps the reader understand the society from which "Miss Alice" comes and the central values of her Quaker religious inheritance. Alice Henderson's own life story, as she reveals it to Christy, is also an illustration of the ways of the Quaker community and the standards by which they live.

Marshall's description of the landscape of the mountain region is used to impress upon the reader the nature of the lives of the mountaineers themselves. As the mountains have a ruggedness and beauty, so do the people who live in them. The portraits Catherine Marshall draws of the characters similarly reflect the inner qualities they possess. For example, Alice Henderson is described as a patrician and poised woman. These qualities reflect the nobility of spirit and the spiritual tranquility that "Miss Alice" has achieved.

The novel, narrated from Christy's point of view, is in the first person. This lends an air of intimacy to the telling of the story and helps the reader to identify with the conflicts and struggles the young teacher experiences.

Social Concerns

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The prominent role that social conflict, particularly as it involves the impoverished and illiterate mountain people of East Tennessee, plays in Christy reflects Catherine Marshall's interest in social issues. The mountaineers depicted in this novel suffer from the material and educational deprivation which have been longstanding problems in Appalachia. When nineteen-year-old Christy Huddleston leaves home to teach and minister to the people of the Smoky Mountains, she finds primitive conditions she had not thought possible in the twentieth century. She is told that outsiders are not welcome and that she may face violence in response to her attempts to upgrade the mountaineers' social and educational position. As she learns more about the people of Cutter's Gap, Christy commits herself to the betterment of their welfare. She is joined by others, such as Miss Alice, the young Minister David Grantland and Dr. Neil MacNeil. Among their goals is the eradication of the traffic in bootleg whiskey, which involves even the children. Dr. MacNeil is dedicated to improving sanitary conditions among the people and doing away with superstitions that prevent them from taking advantage of the benefits of modern medicine. David Grantland, who is appalled by the tradition of illegal whiskey and violent feuding among the mountain folk, risks his life by speaking out against these practices. The reformers are appalled by the election of corrupt officials who condone murder if the murderer is a member of their clan.

Literary Precedents

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Conflict and struggle in the frontier regions of North America is a theme in many novels. Christy shares the Western genre's tendency to focus on the conditions of lawlessness and rugged individualism that characterized American pioneer society. Ole Edvart Rolvaag's Giants in the Earth (1927) and the novels of Willa Cather have analyzed the conditions of life in regions which are isolated and largely free of the trappings of civilized life.

Christy also contains several elements which are traditional in the genre of the romance novel. It is the story of a young girl, living an adventurous and rather unprotected life in a setting which is exotic compared to the place of her upbringing. As in many romance novels, the heroine finds the man to whom she is drawn hard to understand. Dramatic tension is introduced when she finds herself forced to decide between the man she thought she loved and another man who suddenly claims her affections.

Adaptations

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In 1994 Christy was adapted to a highly successful weekly television serial.

Bibliography

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Sources for Further Study

Goin, Mary Elisabeth. “Catherine Marshall: Three Decades of Popular Religion.” Journal of Presbyterian History 56, no. 3 (Fall, 1978): 219-235. Examines how Marshall developed her writing to help readers meet God and seek salvation as a goal, stressing her focus on the individual’s spiritual experiences.

McReynolds, Kathy. Catherine Marshall. Minneapolis, Minn.: Bethany House, 1999. Explores Marshall’s spiritual beliefs and practices while writing Christy and how that book affected her spiritually after publication. Incorporates excerpts from her journals.

Marshall, Catherine. A Closer Walk. Edited by Leonard E. LeSourd. Old Tappan, N.J.: Chosen Books, 1986. Marshall’s second husband, a religious publisher, remarks on his editorial input while she wrote early drafts of Christy. Includes Marshall’s spiritual lifeline.

Marshall, Catherine. Meeting God at Every Turn: A Personal Family Story. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Chosen Books, 2002. A chapter discusses Marshall’s mother, her religious viewpoints, her mission work, and how she influenced the characterization of Christy.

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