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.
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 histories of the characters such as Neil MacNeil are included to explain the reason behind the original emigration of the ancestors of the...
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