One of my favorite books in high school (and today) is Christy by Catherine Marshall, and when the series with Kellie Martin came on TV, I watched every episode. Who else can relate?
For those who aren’t familiar with the story, it takes place in 1912. The titular character is Christy Huddleston, a nineteen-year old woman from Asheville, North Carolina, who goes to Cutter Gap, in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee to teach at a mission school.
Her introduction to the community is a baptism of fire. Christy gets into El Pano, the nearest town, only to find no one is there to meet her. She asks Ben Pentland, the postmaster, to take her to the mission, a distance of seven miles, and they have to walk in the snow.
The two of them stop off at the Spencer cabin to rest a bit, and are relaxing with the family when Bob Allen is brought in with a head wound. He was hit by a fallen tree on his way to El Pano to meet Christy. Much to her horror, the local doctor, Neil MacNeill shows up and performs a trepanation operation on Bob, using the Spencer kitchen table.
Christy is very young and naïve, so she’s shocked by what she sees in Cutter Gap–cabins full of filth, children whose fathers only show up when they feel like it, and a school that’s ill-equipped to accomodate twelve grades. She sees women and girls who have married at fourteen. Superstition is prevalent. Moonshining is common, as is feuding, with people being killed senselessly. Christy is even unprepared for the sight of a rabbit that’s been killed by a hawk, its innards strewn over the snow.
Life might be hard, but Christy also finds joy and friendship. Fairlight Spencer becomes her best friend, and Miss Alice Henderson, a nurse and fellow teacher fills her in about the history of the Cutter Gap people. Most intriguingly of all, Christy finds herself torn between two men: David Grantland, the mission pastor, and Dr. MacNeill, who is a widower and Miss Alice’s former son-in-law.
The book was first published in 1967. Catherine Marshall, a widow since the death of her first husband, Dr. Peter Marshall, had married Leonard LeSourd in 1959. She was a published author, whose first books were about Dr. Marshall’s life and ministry, as well as her own struggle to recover from his sudden passing. Christy was her first full-length novel.
Christy was partially based on the experiences of Marshall’s mother, Leonora Whitaker Wood. Wood taught school at the Ebenezer Mission in Del Rio, Tennessee, starting in December of 1909. There, she met Reverend John Ambrose Wood, marrying him four months later. Christy fans have long wondered why Marshall chose to change the names of the mission and the town, but my guess is that she wanted the option of expanding on her parents’ story. She also may not have wanted Del Rio to be overrun with tourists. Ergo, Christy is a nonfiction novel.
Naturally, there were plenty of differences between Wood’s story and her fictional counterpart. Leonora lived outside of Asheville in Dillingham, North Carolina, and she did have three semesters of teaching experience before she went to the mission. Unlike Christy, Leonora joined the mission in 1909 instead of 1912. She also had more help teaching than Christy did, with some of the aid coming from Opal Corn Myers, on which Marshall based the character of Ruby Mae Morrison. Her parents were Flora and Arthur Corn, or Fairlight and Jeb Spencer in the novel (Watch an interview with Opal here). Additionally, there was no typhu epidemic as detailed in Marshall’s work; the vast majority of the people Leonora met at the Ebenezer mission lived to a ripe old age.
Christy was an instant success. As of 2017, it is estimated to have sold over ten million copies and recently celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in print with a special hardcover edition.
Where there’s a great book, there’s often a movie studio sniffing around looking to make a movie, and MGM bought the rights to Christy in 1969. According to Leonard LeSourd, a script was written and Catherine was acting as consultant for the film. Unfortunately, this came at about the time that Kirk Kerkorian purchased MGM, which meant the current production schedule was completely scrapped. As often happens in Hollywood, Christy languished in MGM’s holdings for decades, which disappointed Marshall. She died in 1983 and was buried beside her first husband.
Then in 1994, independent producers MTM Enterprises and CBS teamed up to bring Marshall’s work to the small screen. Christy aired for two seasons, with twenty-one episodes and three TV movies total, and starred Kellie Martin as the title character, Randall Batinkoff as David, Steward Finlay-McLennan as Dr. MacNeill, Tyne Daly as Miss Alice, and Tess Harper as Fairlight. Since the aim was to expand the novel, there were a lot of extra story arcs and elements added to the series, but there was enough faithfulness to the original plot that it succeeded.
The show made a huge impression. It was filmed on a private farm in Townsend, Tennessee, and every effort was made to ensure authenticity, from the meticulously accurate Edwardian sets and props to the the accents of the Cutter Gap residents. Kellie Martin, who is one of my favorite present-day actresses, was a wonderful Christy. It was cool seeing her doing her own thing instead of playing a daughter or a sister, and she killed it. Martin is ably matched by Tyne Daly, who was a perfect Miss Alice–strong, wise, and humorous, not to mention able to quote Shakespeare at the drop of a hat.
One of the major elements carried over from the novel is the love triangle between Christy, David, and Dr. MacNeill, except the series colored things up. They also added what John Lennon whimsically called “a spanner in the works,” with the return of Margaret (Susan Diol), Miss Alice’s daughter. In the novel, Margaret died from complications of pregnancy due to typhoid. In the series, she runs away and pretends to be dead because she hates living in Cutter Gap. She’s not present enough to turn the triangle into a rectangle, but her existence teases inevitable roadblocks to any possible relationship between Christy and Neil. This will-she-won’t-she dynamic persisted until the last episode, which aired on August 17, 1995. Once again, it was a regime change, this time at CBS, that prompted the series going kaput.
The ending felt abrupt to many fans, including me, and there were a lot of breaths bated, waiting for something, anything to show what happened. But nothing did. I remember there was (and still is) a rash of Christy fanfic on the Web, much of which can still be found today. A lot of it involves either killing Margaret off or otherwise eliminating her, but either way, fans wanted closure.
Enough people protested being left on a cliffhanger that producer Tom Blomquist decided to reboot Christy, with a two-part miniseries on the PAX channel, followed by a TV movie, airing in 2000 and 2001.
Kellie Martin chose not to reprise her role. Neither did Tyne Daly, Tess Harper and Randall Batinkoff, so they went with Lauren Lee Smith as Christy, Diane Ladd as Miss Alice, Ingrid Torrance as Fairlight, and James Waterston as David. However, Stewart Finlay-McLennan returned, and so did several of the supporting players. The production was also filmed in the Canadian Rockies instead of the Great Smokies.
I don’t know how to put my reaction nicely. I really don’t. I just remember thinking when I watched them that the new episodes were disappointingly flat and Diane Ladd in particular seemed to blend into the wallpaper. And Canada? Really? No offense to my Canadian readers, but the Rockies and the Smokies couldn’t be more different. It would be like filming a story about the California Gold Rush in the French Alps. Sure, Christy fans wanted closure, but with the new series being as bad as this one, who needs it? Leaving well-enough alone would have been so much better.
The original series wins out in my opinion, which is why its being open-ended doesn’t bother me anymore. The novel itself is open-ended, and it wasn’t by design. Years after Catherine Marshall died, her family discovered notes outlining a sequel to Christy. As far as I know, these notes have never been released to the public, and I honestly hope they stay that way. Christy ending on a question mark has never failed to get my brain thinking, even after dozens of times of reading the book. In a way, it means the story never really ends. Adding more might just spoil whatever ending fans have come to in their own minds, and that’s no fun. I say keep the mystery.
Watching and reading Christy again, twenty-five years after the first series ended and over fifty years after Marshall’s novel was published, I was struck anew by the stark beauty of the story and the vitalness of the language and characters. Plus, Christianity is portrayed truthfully and intelligently, a rarity nowadays. Christy feels like a refuge from the cynicism and tone-deafness in much of today’s Hollywood. So-called “entertainment” can be all about catering to an agenda. Or taking a stand because it’s fashionable, not because it’s needed or based on reality. And it’s all about darkening and roughening up stories just because. Christy doesn’t fall in line with any of that, thank goodness. I hope many more people can experience the world Catherine Marshall created.
Speaking of darkness, a new “Origins” post is on the way. I think a lot of you will be able to guess what this one is about. Thanks for reading, all, and see you tomorrow…