The daughter and wife of Presbyterian ministers, Catherine Marshall fictionalized the religious awakening her mother experienced while teaching in Appalachia. Nineteen-year-old Christy Huddleston—inspired by Marshall’s mother, Leonora Whitaker Wood—volunteers to teach after hearing about efforts by the American Inland Mission and Miss Alice Henderson, a Quaker teacher, to establish schools for mountain children discussed at a church conference.
Leaving her Asheville, North Carolina, home by train in January of 1912, Christy ignores the conductor’s warnings that Cutter Gap is dangerous because of feuds and vice and that she is unprepared for the extremes she will encounter. Christy walks seven miles from the depot in snow and cold temperatures toward the mission building with Ben Pentland, who delivers mail. On the way, Christy and Pentland stop at the Allen cabin, where men bring unconscious family patriarch Bob Allen, saying he suffered an accident on his way to greet the schoolteacher. Christy meets brusque Dr. Neil MacNeill, who performs emergency surgery, and observes the superstitious ways of the mountain people. Her repulsion at the rustic cabin’s lack of sanitation and people’s seemingly unenlightened practices test her commitment, but Christy resolves to stay.
Exhausted, Christy arrives at the mission, where she meets preacher David Grantland, his sister Ida, and Ruby Mae Morrison, a student who helps at the mission. Christy welcomes her pupils at the school building, which also serves as a church, and soon learns that they are more complex than she expected. Christy is impressed by their intelligence but not by their hygiene, and holds a handkerchief over her nose. She leads daily recitations of Bible verses, as required by Tennessee law at that time, and develops lessons she can adjust for children of all ages grouped together in her single classroom.
Christy struggles to teach without adequate supplies and books and plans how to secure materials. She visits students’ homes and tries to explain proper sanitation to their parents. Frustrated because male and female students insist on sitting separately and children avoid people from rival families, Christy disciplines fighting children and attempts to enforce discipline when older boys, especially Lundy Taylor, play pranks.
Meeting Miss Alice Henderson, Christy confides her disappointment and concerns, questioning whether she should leave. She admires the older teacher, seeking her guidance and addressing practical concerns regarding educational and spiritual issues; Miss Alice reinforces Christy’s resolve to continue her work. Christy’s endurance of hardships is strengthened by her interactions with adults interested in learning. She begins teaching Fairlight Spencer, with whom she develops a friendship, and attends sewing circle sessions where Miss Alice tells parables. Christy learns about the people she has chosen to teach and live among, enjoying tales explaining their Scotch-Irish traditions. She delights in everyday things and applies the religious understanding she acquires from reading the Bible, evaluating scriptures, and praying. She matures spiritually and emotionally.
Upset that children walk miles barefoot to school despite snowy conditions, Christy decides to create a boarding facility at the mission where pupils can stay during the winter. Praying about how she will fund her project, Christy resourcefully writes potential patrons and boldly travels to Knoxville to discuss her ideas with a rich businessman. Her prayers are answered with an outpouring of donated items and funds.
The brutal murder of a friend’s husband, Tom McHone, and...
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