Please welcome Marilyn Dean Mitchem, a nationally recognized commentator on Catherine Marshall’s novel ‘Christy.’ Marilyn has been active in the Christy internet community since the summer of 1995 (you can find her currently on ChristyFest’s Facebook site). She first attended ChristyFest in 2000, and was a planning team member from 2004 to 2006. Marilyn is in the process of writing the first-ever book on the history of Ebenezer Mission, tentatively titled ‘Sifting through the Ashes: The History of Ebenezer Mission.’
In writing Christy, Catherine Marshall wove elements of fact and fiction, mystery and humor, grief and joy. She honored her parents’ service at Ebenezer Mission, and, from their stories, created the timeless characters we readers know and love.
But important differences exist between the fictional character, Christy Rudd Huddleston, and her real-life counterpart, Leonora Haseltine Whitaker.
Although both women were born and raised in Buncombe County, North Carolina, sheltered Christy knew little of rural life. En route to El Pano, she wondered why her parents hadn’t told her “that such awful conditions existed within a day’s train ride from Asheville, right in our mountains.” Leonora made infrequent trips to Asheville. Shy and reserved, she likely felt underdressed and out of place in the hustle and bustle of Pack Square.
Let’s compare each woman’s environment.
*Christy, the eldest of two children, was born circa 1892 to upper middle class parents in Asheville, North Carolina, and lived on Montford Avenue.
*Christy attended the historic downtown First Presbyterian Church.
*Christy enjoyed tea parties and dances. She shopped at the Bon Marché department store.
*Christy attended the Asheville city schools and is the most famous fictional student of Flora MacDonald College in Red Springs, North Carolina.
*While at Montreat during summer 1911 Christy volunteered to teach for the American Inland Mission, founded by Dr. Mercer Ferrand of Arkansas. She had no previous teaching experience.
*Christy arrived at El Pano in January 1912. After no one met her at the train station, Christy stayed overnight with Mrs. Tatum at her boarding house.
*Christy’s supervisor and mentor was Alice Henderson, a Quaker missionary from Ardmore, Pennsylvania.
*While at Cutter Gap, Christy was courted by two suitors: Rev. David Grantland and Dr. Neil MacNeill.
*A native of Cutter Gap, Dr. MacNeill cared for his fellow neighbors. He had formerly been married to Margaret Henderson, Alice’s daughter, who died of typhoid while pregnant with their first child. Neil was a widower when Christy arrived in 1912.
*Leonora Whitaker, the eldest of eight children, was born October 26, 1890, on her family’s farm near Dillingham, North Carolina. Her family was self-sufficient; trips to Asheville were rare and important.
*Leonora knew the working end of a cow and how to gather eggs.
*She helped her mother put up food for the winter.
*Leonora worshiped at Dillingham Presbyterian Church, itself a mountain mission congregation founded by the Asheville Presbytery during her girlhood.
*Leonora attended country school through grade eight in the Dillingham community.
*Since Buncombe County operated no public high schools until 1907, Leonora attended Weaverville College, a private academy owned by the Methodist Episcopal Church, South.
*Leonora taught country school for about three semesters before coming to Ebenezer Mission.
*While at Montreat during summer 1909 Leonora volunteered to teach for the American Inland Mission, founded in 1897 by Dr. Edward O. Guerrant of Wilmore, Kentucky.
*Leonora arrived at Ebenezer Mission, southwest of Del Rio, Tennessee, shortly after Christmas 1909. After no one met her at the train station, she stayed overnight with Joseph and Mildred Burnett at their boarding house in Del Rio.
*Leonora’s first supervisor at Ebenezer Mission was Margaret Allison of Hopewell, North Carolina. About ten years earlier, Margaret had been Leonora’s third grade teacher at Dillingham. They had lost contact with each other during the intervening years.
*While at Ebenezer Leonora was courted by John Ambrose Wood, the mission’s resident pastor, who came to Ebenezer in September 1909. They married on May 3, 1910, four months after meeting.
*Residents of the Old Fifteenth District, where Ebenezer Mission was located, relied upon Dr. John Ruble of Del Rio for medical treatment. No trained physician lived near Ebenezer.