Friday, July 9, 2021

"Christy" by Catherine Marshall

I'd read this once before, back in the mid-'90s when the TV series based on this book first aired.  Which is why I have a TV-tie-in cover, of course.  It was such a BIG deal when that show aired, to the people where I lived right then!  You see, I lived in western North Carolina, only a couple of hours from the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee where this book is set, and where the series was partially filmed.  And if you think that Appalachian mountainfolk weren't simultaneously excited for a big TV series to be all about people like their forebears, and also terribly apprehensive of how those forebears would be portrayed... well, you need to think again.  

You see, a lot of times, pop culture portrays the mountain folk of Appalachia as being half-witted and ornery and generally useless.  The hillbilly caricature is awfully prevalent in movies and TV shows in particular, and naturally, people who actually live in the Appalachians are sensitive about this.  It's true that things like feuds, moonshining, superstitions, and hardscrabble farming were parts of life in the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains for some people, generations ago.  But when those things get turned into the sum total of a fictional character, then you end up with a caricature instead of a representation of life.  Anyway, that's why the people I grew up around were cautious about the show.  

I think just about everyone I knew at the time watched the show.  And then discussed it with everyone else.  Certainly, all my friends and all my mom's friends did.  It's been years and years since I watched it, but I have the whole series on DVD and am now seriously considering pulling it out to see how my memory of it compares to the actual show.

Anyway.  This is supposed to be a book review.  All of that was just to explain to you why I'd read this 25 years ago, as a teen.  I reread it now because my book group chose it for our summer read, and here we are.

This book just flew by.  I was so engrossed.  It was a very nostalgic read for me, not because I felt nostalgic for being a teenager and reading it the first time, but rather, it made me nostalgic for the Appalachians of North Carolina, so close to Tennessee, so similar in so many ways.  All the descriptions of mountain scenery just hit me right in the feels, and yeah... I became an odd mixture of hyped up and melancholy at times.

Christy is based on the life of Catherine Marshall's mother, Leonora, although it's highly fictionalized.  Her mother did grow up around Asheville, NC, and go teach school in the mountains of Tennessee at a mission school.  Some things, like walking seven miles through snow to reach the school, are based on fact.  There really were an inspiring woman and a handsome young preacher leading the mission.  But enough of the book is made up that it's considered fiction.  If you want to know more about the fact vs. fiction, I recommend reading this and this.

But on to the fiction.  Christy Huddleston is a college student in 1912 when she listens to a presentation about work being done to help educate the people in remote areas of the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee.  She learns they need a teacher and volunteers to teach for one year even though she hasn't finished her own schooling.  Even though she grew up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, also part of the Appalachians, she feels as if she's entering a whole new world when she reaches Cutter Gap, TN.  At first, she looks down on the mountain people there, assuming that because their lives are simple and hard, lacking in things like indoor plumbing, basic sanitation knowledge, electricity, and other modern "necessities," the people living there must be simple and backward too.  

But she learns, sometimes painfully slowly, that her assumptions about these people can lead to more than just simple misunderstandings.  She sees things like moonshine and thinks of it as evil and contemptible until she learns how and why people come to depend on it for their livelihoods.  She looks at the feuds between families and sees only hatred and ignorance until she learns about their histories, sometimes needing to learn about hundreds of years ago when these people's ancestors came here from Scotland, and why.

Most of all, Christy learns to look and think before she speaks and acts.  And that includes taking a hard look at her own beliefs about God and Christianity, and looking at her own reasons for coming there, and for staying to teach even when things get hard.  She is befriended and mentored by several women, romanced by the mission's minister, and challenged by the local doctor to think and believe and act for herself instead of always following the example of those she admires.  It's a coming of age story, more than anything.  And I'm very fond of those.

Also, Miss Alice Henderson is my hero.  As the quotations below will show, hee.

Particularly Good Bits:  

"'Before God,' he would often say to me, 'I've just one duty as a father.  That is to see that thee has a happy childhood tucked under thy jacket'" (p. 71).

But to Miss Alice it was lack of joy that was the heresy (p. 117).

There was something I had noticed too: an initial acceptance of herself as she was and so of other people with their foibles.  And so she did as little scolding or criticizing of others for their foolish behavior or their sins as anyone I had ever known.  it was not that she was willing to compromise with wrongdoing or poverty or ignorance, just that she was a long step ahead of wasting emotional energy on fretting.  And she never put pressure on the rest of us to accept her opinions.  The secret of her calm seemed to be that she was not trying to prove anything.  She was -- that was all.  And her stance toward life seemed to say: God is -- and that is enough (p. 174).

"Such morbid introspection," Miss Alice added crisply, "was nonsense.  Either God exists -- or He does not.  If He does, either an individual has a relationship with Him -- or that relationship has been severed.  Indigestion or arthritis can't change the bottom fact that God is or the unfailingness of a single one of His promises" (p. 376).

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It: PG-16 for violence, a long section about a typhoid epidemic that can get pretty disgusting, and a discussion of a child's grooming and rape by a serial child molester (it happened in the past and is related as the backstory for a character, but still, it's not something I'd let a young teen son or daughter of mine read).

This is my 23rd book read and reviewed for my third Classics Club list.


  1. I love this book, and I love the show, but I have to treat them as separate in my mind, because they are not much alike. Miss Alice in particular was "done wrong" (how does "extremely tall, thin, and with a blonde braid wound around her head like a crown translate into Tyne Dailey?). I too had this particular edition of the book, with that exact cover... and then somewhere along the way, maybe in a move, I lost it, which is sad. My parents / brother are actually listening to the audio version of this twice a week when they spend time together; Kelly Martin narrates it, and it's glorious.

    The DVD series is extremely worth owning, and also extremely rare now -- I looked it up on a whim the other day, thinking I might buy a copy and send it to a friend, and it's out of print, so now it costs like $100 a set!!

    1. Charity, yeah, I think they decided to cast Tyne Daly because she could project that fiercely intelligent, yet unfailingly kind and helpful essence of Miss Alice, not her exterior looks.

      I didn't know Kellie Martin did an audio version of this! I bet that's awesome. But that's crazy that the DVDs are so expensive now! I mean, I picked up the whole series for like $15, once upon a time. Wow.

  2. Interesting post! I liked hearing about why the show was such a big event for your friends and neighbors, because the story is THEIR story, their history. That's fascinating.

    I read "Christy" back when I was in college. It didn't really grab me for some reason. I fear I disliked both love interests quite a bit, which probably had something to do with it. ;) But I admired Christy's grit and determination in moving to a completely new, different place and doing her best to forge meaningful relationships with the people she encountered. And the Scottish history parts were super cool!

    1. Katie, yeah, I could see you disliking both David and Dr. MacNeil. I spent most of this book wanting to either shake or smack David, myself.

  3. I read Christy last year and watched the show afterwards. I have to say I preferred the book to the show. The setting and history were facinating, but didn't really love the characters. But maybe a reread in the future will refresh my thoughts.

    1. Anna, this definitely has a strong sense of setting and history! That's too bad the characters didn't click for you, but not every book is for every reader.

  4. I love this book! I've read it several times. (And I enjoyed the TV series they did of it, too.)

    1. Lark, so glad you enjoyed both this book and the TV series :-)


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