Christy: Facts get in the way of fiction

Against her parents’ wishes, after hearing the founder of the American Inland Mission tell about needs of impoverished people within a day’s train ride of her Asheville, N.C., home, Christy Huddleston goes off to teach in a one-room school in Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains.

section of map of Cutter Gap, TN, 1912
Small section of map on inside cover of Christy.

From the moment she steps off the train in a snow storm and finds no one to meet her, Christy’s romantic ideas of Christian service begin crumble.

Christy by Catherine Marshall
McGraw-Hill, 1967 496 pp.
1967 bestseller #5. My grade: B.

Christy has over 60 students of all ages in a single room.

There are no books.

Students walk to school barefoot year round, heedless of mud and snow.

The smell of unwashed bodies is overpowering.

Cutters Gap has some assets. Handsome preacher David Grantland is one of them.

Another is Alice Henderson, a quiet and sensible Quaker woman who wants the highlanders to know that God loves them.

Prickly, anti-religious Dr. Neil McNeil is a third.

Catherine Marshall based her novel on her parents’ experience in Appalachia in 1912-13, telling the story through her mother’s perspective. That perspective seriously weakens the story: Marshall is too close to her real life characters to make their fictional counterparts feel real.

Like a sermon in a movie theater, the story just feels out of place.

©2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Sand Pebbles shows gunboat diplomacy’s murky underside

sailing on Yangtzee River
Yangtzee River

In 1925, Jack Holman becomes a Sand Pebble, one of the U. S. Navy seamen assigned to the San Pablo, an aging gunboat that patrols the Yangtze River. Jack’s a loner whose passion is engines.

He quickly learns the San Pablo is “a home and a feeder,” where coolies do the work and living conditions are easy.

Jack’s eagerness to make the engine room run perfectly raises the ire of those content to leave all the work to the coolies. And when he teaches one of the ordinary coolies how engines work, he makes the head of the coolie engine crew lose face.

Jack resents the battleship drill imposed by the impeccably Navy skipper, Lt. Collins, but he makes an effort to fit in, make friends. He even meets a girl he likes and could even love.

Shirley Eckert has come to teach at the China Light Mission run by belligerent missionary convinced the presence of the gunboats cause resentment among the Chinese and cause more problems than they solve.

One of Shirley’s brightest Chinese students becomes involved in the revolution. Shirley and the other China Light missionaries feel safe knowing Cho-jen’s political genius will protect them from even the resentment against Americans that the Navy’s river patrols arouse.

The Sand Pebbles have nothing to protect them from the Chinese resentment or from Lt. Collins’s patriotic fervor.

Richard McKenna plots his story with military precision. The characters are cleanly drawn, utterly believable, bewilderingly human.

And, if that were not enough, from his own service on a Yangtze River gunboat, McKenna has insights into the Chinese landscape and culture that help contemporary readers understand events in the Far East today.

The Sand Pebbles
by Richard McKenna
Harper & Row, 1962
597 pages
1963 bestseller # 9
My grade: A

Photo credit: Three Gorges by GoldDuck

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Hawaii Makes Fiction Seem Like Biography

James A. Michener’s novel Hawaii earns the adjective epic just for its length. But the novel lives up to that accolade.

Michener takes readers from the volcanic eruption that birthed the islands up to statehood.  He weaves tales of four disparate peoples— Tahaitians, New Englanders, Chinese, Japanese —  into a seamless story that mimics the polyglot nature of the islands themselves.

As Michener tells it, the Tahaitans flee Bora Bora for religious and political freedom.

A thousand years later, American missionaries come to convert the Hawaiians by less bloody but equally repressive means. Descendants of the missionaries import  Chinese and Japanese laborers to work the fields and businesses their parents had established.

Each new wave of immigrants is regarded with suspicion and hostility by earlier ones.

World War II precipitates the breakdown of the barriers between the ethnic groups as grandchildren of immigrants declare themselves Americans.

The sea is both setting and symbol for Michener’s story. Only those who have the perseverance to defeat the sea have the character to shape the island’s destiny.

Michener makes his fiction read like biography, leaving readers convinced that the way he tells it was the way it was — which is the highest tribute that can be paid to any storyteller.

By James A. Michener
Random House, 1959
937 pages
1959  bestseller # 3
My Grade: A
© 2008 Linda Gorton Aragoni