Nineteen year old Christy Huddleston wanted to make a difference, wanted to be someone. Someone beyond the daughter of a well-to-do businessman, that is. And when she heard a missionary speak of the needs among the Appalachians just hours away from her city, she was determined to go.
What she finds in Cutter Gap, Tennessee is even more foreign than she’d ever dreamed. She is full of grand plans for helping – but soon discovers that being “someone” and making a difference doesn’t necessarily mean what she thought it had.
This wasn’t my first reading of Catherine Marshall’s Christy. Anna and I owned a copy when we were teens and I know I read it at least once. I think I saw the TV miniseries too – although I might be getting it mixed up with Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman (I know, not at all similar). Needless to say, by now you probably realize that while I read it I really didn’t remember anything from it. I was glad when Stephanie from Simple Things selected Christy as May’s Reading to Know Classics Bookclub reading.
I enjoyed reading the ambitious Christy’s story, thinking back to my own ambitious teenaged and young adult plans for saving the world. I think the desire to make a difference, to be somebody is a common one. I also think that being disappointed with how your well-intentioned efforts turn out is also a common experience. I remember taking an impoverished middle schooler under my wing, determining to share the gospel with her and to train her into a godly girl. I drove her places, taught her how to do various crafts, studied the Bible with her. And I quickly became disillusioned when she and her family began to expect that I’d drive her places on a moment’s notice, wanted me to buy her things, and generally took advantage of my good intentions. I struggled to know what to do when I wanted so badly to help but it didn’t seem to be working the way I thought it would work.
How I wish I’d had someone like Christy’s Miss Alice to mentor me in the ways of giving myself away. I loved reading Marshall’s descriptions of Miss Alice – a woman whose theology I didn’t particularly agree with, but whose gentleness and devotion are absolutely praiseworthy. Miss Alice is described as pretty much a saint, although she avers that she is not, and even the sordid tale she eventually tells does little to sully her reputation. Yes, wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a saint who always knows the right thing to say and to do to mentor one along the way?
Alas, we are much more like Marshall’s other characters – flawed humans with quirks and quibbles and mixed motives.
Christy marvels, in one section, at one woman’s wisdom mixed with superstition. I do too.
Opal went closer to Bird’s-Eye, took his empty plate. “Looky-here, Bird’s-Eye, whilst you was fixin’ that fawn’s leg, you was a real man. You know that? It’s plumb foolish for you not to let more folks in the Cove see a heap more of that Bird’s-Eye. They have the wrong idea ’bout you.”
The man looked at her in genuine astonishment. “That must be woman tease-talk. Are you a-joshin’ me? Fixin’ animals’ legs ain’t no man’s work.”
“Fixin’ onything is man’s work,” came Opal’s firm answer. “Tearin’ down or killin’, that’s easy. Any addlepated fool kin pull the trigger of a rifle-gun or fling a rock. It’s fixin’ that’s hard, takes a heap more doin’.”
Listening to this, I could see again the baby girl’s tiny body lying in the middle of the big bed. How amazing that this homespun mending philosophy and the awful liver-grown superstition could be part of the same woman.
We humans are a mixed lot – with God’s image stamped on world-played clay. Try as she might to smooth the edges and impress them into a new mold, Christy never managed to truly change those she worked with. And neither can we.
The answer, of course, the way to truly make a difference is not in “fixing” or “cleaning up” but in the gospel – as Miss Alice admonished the young pastor David Grantland:
“Clean up a pigsty,” she commented one evening, “and if the creatures in it still have pig-minds and pig-desires, soon it will be the same old pigsty again. Preach the gospel, David, teach it, preach to the hearts of men. That’s your business. Then the fruits, including the reforms in other areas, will follow as fruits. But it’s no good tying apples onto a tree. Soon they’ll be rotting apples….The question at issue, David, is how to get rid of the evil in men. Attacking corruption in the environment won’t do it. That’s like cutting weeds in a field. In a fortnight the weeds will be grown again. And attacking the men themselves won’t work either. Whatever separates men from love can’t be of God.”
Though David was stubborn, at last humbly, he asked the question Miss Alice must have been wanting him to ask, “Well then, how can we deal with evil?”
“By demonstrating to the people a way that’s more powerful than evil. And that’s good news! Let’s get on with living and teaching and preaching that good news with all the verve and enthusiasm we have.”
“Then,” David said, “if that’s the technique, why aren’t people changed more drastically by today’s preaching?”
“Could be because we don’t often have the courage to give the good news to people straight. Most of us are still talking religious theory that we haven’t begun living, and talking in worn-out cliches at that. A watered-down message is as futile as applying rose water to a cancer. When you heart is ablaze with the love of God, when you love other people – especially the ripsnorting sinners – so much that you dare to tell them about Jesus with no apologies, then never fear, there will be results. One of two things will happen. Either there’ll be persecutions, or the fire will leap from your heart to catch and blaze in the depths of other men’s being. I’ve watched the process over and over. And then when the blaze starts, the reforms will follow as surely as the flower follows the bud, or the fruit comes after the blossom on the tree.”
“It’s too slow a way.”
“No David, it isn’t too slow a way. The other is no way at all.”
Amen and amen.
This girl, at nineteen, dreamed of making a difference, of being someone. Life has taught her that her grand dreams don’t necessarily produce grand outcomes. But Miss Alice’s charge echoes in this woman’s heart, reminds her that the gospel is the only way to make a difference, that losing oneself for the gospel is the only way to be someone.
May I have a heart ablaze, a tongue unstopped, a love unfettered – a life that would make a difference.
Check out what other readers are saying about Christy at the May Bookclub wrap-up post