Monday, July 25, 2016

Rediscovering Gold


So difficult to write well (as we writerly types are quite aware), but life-changing if we succeed. As precious as gold.

Such was this book for me: Christy by Catherine Marshall when I was a teenager. If you're acquainted with my personal story, you know how extremely instrumental it was in influencing me to eventually become a writer.

Christy planted a seed that blossomed 30 years later. (I even named my daughter Christy; that's how much this book meant to me!)

So recently I decided to dust it off and reread it as a student this time - to find out why this particular book reached into my heart and mind and very soul to implant its characters and message for all time. What had the writer done right?

Here are some of the incredible passages I rediscovered. Note the voice and carefully crafted descriptions used by Mrs. Marshall, subtly woven into the story line. Nothing blatant or in-your-face. But they paint sensory-rich word pictures that are completely engaging. You, the reader, are seeing the poverty-ridden Great Smokies of 1936 for the first time through the eyes of young, naive, city-bred Christy Huddleston, proper, monied, and earnestly trying to make her life count for something.

1) "For no reason at all the white fields on either side of the narrowing lane reminded me of the top of one of my mother's devil food cakes, thickly covered with white frosting ... Beyond those fields frosted with white, were the foothills, and beyond them, the mountains. A golden glow rimmed the easternmost range, and over the mountains hung a soft smoky-blue mantle."

2) "'Mr. Pentland, how many families live around the Cutter Gap section?'
The mailman thought a moment. 'Jedgmatically, I don't know. Maybe 'bout seventy.'
'Most of the people farm, don't they? What crops? What do they raise?'
'Raise young'uns mostly,' he answered drily, his face never changing expression."

3) "'What's she like [Alice Henderson]? What does she look like?'
The mountaineer ... took his time about answering. 'Miz Henderson's getting up thar - not so young now. But she's a pert 'un - dauncy.' He chortled, a soft low chuckle that seemed to come from deep within him. 'Tangy as an unripe persimmon, matter of fact. Rides a horse all over the mountains by herself. Sidesaddle, longskirt. Sits like a queen in that saddle ... She's a smiley woman. All her wrinkles are smile-wrinkles. Has a heap o-hair, light hair, leetle grey in it now. Wears her hair in braids that she folds round and round her head, like - like a crown.'"

4) "The room was very quiet. There was only the creak of the snow-laden branches outside and the gurgling of the stream under its ice coating behind the house. The words just spoken had marched proudly out of the Quaker lady's mouth and now stood straight and tall in the quiet room."

Although the current literary trend is to stay away from dialect, I believe Mrs. Marshall's expertise in using dialect and even period-piece spelling (drily) largely contributes to the charm of this classic story, transporting the reader right into the presence of Mr. Pentland and the other iconic mountain folk inhabiting a unique place and time that no longer exists.

Ahh, pure gold.

So tell me, in what books have you mined your own priceless golden nuggets?