Leonora – the Real Christy
“In the still air Old Buncombe’s whistle blew – far away. The sound echoed faintly in the valley between the mountains….Then even the sound was gone, and there was nothing…I stood there wanting to move and yet not able to, staring at the spot on the horizon where the two tracks converged into one.” Christy, Chapter One
In 1909, Leonora Whitaker left her home to teach at a mission school near Del Rio, TN. She is the mother of Catherine Marshall, and Christy [the novel] is inspired by Leonora’s experiences teaching in rural Appalachia.
2009 marks the 100th anniversary of Leonora’s arrival in Del Rio, TN, which led to the writing and creation of the beloved novel, Christy. You can learn more about Leonora and her work at the mission as ChristyFest™ nears – to see what special events we have scheduled, please check out the Schedule.
Excerpt from Reader’s Digest Condensed Books
Autumn 1967 Selections Volume 4
The story was born in 1958 when Catherine Marshall suggested that her parents revisit the Tennessee mountain community where they had met in 1909. Her mother, young Leonora Whitaker, from Hendersonville*, North Carolina, had been a teacher in a one-room mission school; her father, the Reverend John Wood, was the Presbyterian minister. Mrs. Marshall went with them on several nostalgic returns, talked with her mother’s former pupils, listened to outpourings of memories, and read copies of The Soul Winner, published by the American Inland Mission. In one issue Leonora wrote: “I sometimes shudder when I look into the faces of my students, and note their intelligence, and realize the responsibility that rests upon me as their teacher…”
Although already familiar with Appalachian ways – she was born in Johnson City, Tennessee, and spent some years in New Creek Valley, West Virginia – Mrs. Marshall next plunged into intensive background research in the Library of Congress, studying Appalachian geography, folklore, ballads, tall tales, clothes and speech. She put the book aside in 1959, the year she married Leonard LeSourd, executive editor of Guideposts magazine, acquiring two sons and a daughter, in addition to her own son, the Reverend Peter John Marshall. Family responsibilities then kept her busy, and she also took time out to write two non-fiction books. In 1965 she began intensive writing on her novel.
Although Christy is firmly based on her mother’s experiences, Mrs. Marshall says the fictional story quickly took over. But any of the most surprising episodes are true – among others, the seven-mile walk in the snow with the postman and the piano hauled over the mountains. But the typhoid epidemic is fictional and cost the author much time and trouble finding someone who could describe in vivid detail this fast-vanishing disease. The onion poultice remedy came from a retired nurse, and Christy’s delirium from the memories of a Tennessee doctor’s daughter who had had typhoid as a child. There was no murder near the mission when Leonora taught there, but Mrs. Marshall studied many old Tennessee murder trial transcripts to make her discussion of feuding authentic.
Since John Wood’s death, Leonora Whitaker Wood, now seventy-four, has wintered with her daughter near Palm Beach, Florida. Mrs. Marshall says, “Mother has followed the writing of the book with delight; it has been the fulfilment of a dream for her too.”
The same sure faith which has illuminated all of Mrs. Marshall’s books runs through Christy like a bright thread. “Faith is a challenge,” she says. “It was faith that took my mother into the mountains on a wild adventure. It is my inheritance from her and from my father. I couldn’t have done anything I have done without it.”