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Family Roots and “Christy”

My mother’s parents and great grands were all four born in Hendersonville, NC. This small, mountain town, only twenty-two miles from Asheville, still has a simple and nostalgic atmosphere about it. Everywhere benches and tables invite its visitors to “set a spell.”

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When we would visit my grands, there always seemed to be time for an excursion downtown. There was never an agenda; it was only a stroll. But somewhere in the roaming was a stop by McFarlan Bakery.

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No one can walk by the open doors to McFarlan Bakery. The smells will drag you in the door. All items are made from scratch daily; this family-owned bakery uses the same recipes from their past sixty years ago. Their salt rising bread, toasted with butter, is one of the best ways to start any day; it doesn’t require preserves or jelly.  A piece of  lemon meringue pie is the perfect conclusion to any meal. Decorated or undecorated cookies, cakes, donuts, and special orders are always available. As a child, I always chose a sugar cookie. Now as an adult, it is hard to make only one decision.

Besides sharing with me a love for her birthplace, Nanna, my grandmother, loved historical novels of all eras. She introduced me to famous women authors like Inglis Fletcher, Gwen Bristow, and Catherine Marshall. All three wrote about strong women who faced life with gumption and faced its challenges with passion.

Christy was one of her favorites when it was published in 1968, and it soon became mine. This was my first read about Appalachia and the struggles with daily life in this region. There is drama a-plenty in this novel that would be categorized with a coming-of-age theme. Catherine Marshall retold the story of her mother, Leonora Whitaker, and her time in Cutter’s Gap.

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In 1912, and against the wishes of her parents, nineteen-year-old Christy Huddleston leaves her life of privilege and ease in Asheville to become a missionary teacher in an impoverished and isolated valley in the Smoky Mountains. Cutter Gap is the fictional community. The job turns out to be more difficult than she had anticipated, as she comes to know and care for the wild mountain people with their fierce pride, terrible poverty, dark superstitions, and their yearning for beauty and truth.

The villagers have old-fashioned ways. For example, they maintain rules and vengeances similar to the Highland clans of old Scotland. They also have a strong belief in folk medicine. Sprinkled with Appalachian sayings, like “twitter-witted,” as a husband calls his wife and son, realism takes a front seat. Teaching in one-room with 70+ children made me grateful for the class sizes in my profession.

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Christy never took her eyes off her goal of teaching. Daily choices like how to get new books for the children or how to buy a black hat on her salary line up beside feuds, moonshine whiskey, rape, and the death of a baby. Her faith is severely tested—by her students and by the suffering of the people she comes to love. When her dearest friend dies during a typhoid epidemic, Christy questions the sovereignty and power of God.

The story line pulled me into this unique sense of place, people, and culture, and I fell in love with Appalachia for the first time. It’s time to read Christy once again.

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