Christy: The Novel and the Reality

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by Marilyn Mitchem

Chapter Five of Christy describes her orientation to life as a mission teacher in Cutter Gap. Over a breakfast of oatmeal, buckwheat pancakes, and maple syrup, Christy speaks with David’s sister, Ida Grantland, “an older woman, tall, almost gaunt, with angular features.”

After Christy learns David left early for Low Gap School, she asks if he also teaches there.

“Oh no, that school’s closed. There were some old desks there; they said we could use them here.” She pointed out the window to a still unfinished building about a thousand yards distant. . . .
“You’ve never had a school here before?”
“No. This will be the first term. That’s why we need desks. Some of the men promised to help David haul them today.”

At the beginning of Chapter Six, while Christy tries to settle her stomach and steady her nerves for the first day of school, she shares her increasing respect for Rev. David Grantland and his abilities.

“He was only seven years older than I, but somehow he seemed a thousand years older in experience and self-assurance. I thought of the Tuesday before when he had sat astride the rafters of the unfinished schoolhouse, driving in roofing nails with powerful blows, shouting down orders from time to time to the men helping him. Later I had watched in admiration his quick orderly decisions as he had supervised the placing of the secondhand benches and battered school desks and the installing of the potbellied stove.”

Two articles, published in the November and December 1909 Soul Winner magazine, describe the opening of Ebenezer’s long-awaited church-schoolhouse.

November: “We are glad to announce that the new chapel at Ebenezer, in the Great Smoky Mountains, is so far completed, that the school has been moved into it, as it had outgrown its old quarters. To Mr. John A. Wood, and Mr. E. M. Munroe much credit is due for this substantial new home. They not only superintended its erection but worked diligently with their own hands. Miss Annie Laurie Williams, the faithful teacher, had so many pupils she had to call in Miss Margaret Allison for help. The enrollment of forty-six pupils is the largest it ever had and when the public school closes, many more will be added to the roll.

December: “We will move the school into the new chapel tomorrow. It is complete, except finishing upstairs. I insisted on waiting till it was painted, but gave up as our school is so full, and we are very crowded here. We had ten new pupils this week. Mr. Wood has made twenty desks, which will seat forty children, and we have forty-six enrolled. They are real nice, light desks–a good job.

Readers will notice at least two significant differences between Christy and these Soul Winner articles.

First, Ida tells Christy that school has never been held before at Cutter Gap Mission. However, the Soul Winner article states that Annie Laurie Williams, the teacher, was so busy that Margaret Allison stepped in to help.

Second, old desks from Low Gap School will be used at Cutter Gap. Christy later mentions “secondhand benches and battered school desks.” On the contrary, Margaret Allison states, “Mr. Wood has made twenty desks, which will seat forty children, and we have forty-six enrolled. They are real nice, light desks–a good job.”

Here truth is more compelling than fiction. I find it remarkable that John Wood, amidst the stresses of completing the church-schoolhouse, built twenty new desks. Smelling of sawdust, these desks were a huge improvement from the long benches used by Ebenezer’s students in the mission house.

You and I recall those well-used-and-abused elementary school desks: replete with wads of fossilized chewing gum, penknife carvings of hearts surrounding sweethearts’ initials, and the ever-present “I HATE SKOOL” scrawled with a permanent marker swiped from the teacher’s desk.

I’d love to ask Catherine Marshall why she changed the factual “real nice, light desks” constructed by her father to battered ones hauled from a closed school. I think of Ebenezer students from the Click, Fish, Corn, Ellison, and Turner families. I relive their excitement in finding new desks in their new school.

Remember Bird’s-Eye Taylor’s compliment to Opal McHone on her sweet potato pie? As far as the desks are concerned, I think in this instance the truth “hits whar ye can hold it!”

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