Even though I’ve read this at least once and I think at least twice before, I found that I remembered almost none of it. I’ve been on a “Christy” kick ever since a trip to the Appalachians, listening to this, reading the novellas for kids that I’ve just discovered, and also re-watching the 1990s TV miniseries. The characters are lovable, and all of the versions are quite episodic, so they lend themselves well to a series.
The story follows Christy Huddleston, a 19 year old in the year 1912, who felt after a ‘pitch’ at church that God had called her to be a teacher in the backwoods of Cutter Gap in the Great Smoky Mountains. It’s told as a frame story, beginning with what I gather is the author speaking to her mother–the real life “Christy” I just discovered, though Catherine Marshall’s mother was actually named Lenore. (The intro to the novel was fascinating, to hear Catherine Marshall’s son recount how his grandmother Lenore reacted to the dramatization of her own life!) Apparently a huge percentage was based on life, but it was still decidedly fictionalized in some key points, hence the name change.
Cutter Gap is the poorest of poor areas, where children and adults alike go without shoes even in the snow, and entire families live in single room cabins covered in filth. The mission house where Christy lives is large and clean, though sparse. Christy’s first introduction to these people is an accident that requires the only doctor in the cove, Doctor Neil MacNeill, to literally perform brain surgery on a crowded cabin’s kitchen table. From there, Christy has a number of moments of self-doubt: she’s never taught before and she has nearly seventy student of all ages to contend with. Some of the students perform cruel pranks on others and herself, and she finds herself caught up in generational mountain feuds. But she falls in love with the children, and finds her purpose in them.
The other three supporting characters are David, the preacher, Miss Alice Henderson, a fellow missionary, and Doctor MacNeill. David is set up early on as Christy’s primary love interest, and remains so for much of the book, but on this reading he struck me as… not quite a Pharisee, but perhaps a pretender. His faith seemed paper-thin, but he was afraid to let anyone know it, and seemed frightened to discover it himself. Doctor MacNeill is a prominent rival for Christy’s affections in the novellas and the TV series, but less so in the novel for most of the book; rather, he infuriates her more than not in the novel. He’s openly non-Christian himself, and challenges Christy’s beliefs, which drives her to Miss Alice for answers. Miss Alice is the only one in the story with a deep and abiding faith throughout–her understanding of God is that He is always good, He wants His children to have joy, and the promises of scripture are there for the taking, but they don’t come to pass automatically. It is she who mentors Christy such that she eventually finds the answers to Neil’s questions.
The novel has far more adult themes than the novellas do; key characters died in the novel version, to my surprise, and the blood feud between a few of the mountain families has some really tragic and dark results. But this is the only one actually written by Catherine Marshall, I learned–everything else was just based on her work. She was a wonderful writer.
My rating: *****
Sexual content: none
Violence: present, but realistic and not gratuitous
Political content: none