Clouds Given Their Marching Orders


“You know, Opal,” I suggested hesitantly, “have you ever thought that the only ugly things in this Cove are man’s fault, while the beautiful things are God’s work? Look at those mountains.” We were sitting on her front steps and her eyes followed mine to the far horizon where the blue peaks melted into the skyline. Always I had to take a deep breath when I looked, really looked at the amplitude of beauty all around us. Only now in the late afternoon with twilight coming on, it was a delicate beauty, not so spectacular as usual. The sky overhead was an inverted bowl with a pale blue lining; over the far mountains, rose faded to peach, with tiny gray clouds looking as if they had been given their marching orders to tramp as majestically across a twilight sky as small clouds can.”

 – Excerpt from Catherine Marshall’s 1967 novel, Christy


I was a teenager when I read Christy, the well-known novel by Catherine Marshall about a young woman whose coming-of-age story takes place in the poorest region of the Appalachian mountains, where she has signed on to be a missionary. That was so many years ago (I’m in my 50s now), that I don’t fully remember all that happened with Christy, but what I do remember is Marshall’s arresting descriptions of the mountain scenery and its people. There is a description of one of the mountain ladies, a woman named Fairlight, handling a fine teacup for the first time, and how when the cup was empty of its contents, she cupped it in both hands. “‘Feels good,’ she said wonderlingly, ‘like silk to the skin.’”  It’s a simple description, but so visceral and so true to the experience of holding a piece of warm china, that I am reminded of it every year when I bring out the china service that I inherited from my grandmother for my holiday meals. (I should probably let it be a reminder of the beauty of having that china service and a reason to use it more often, but I am terribly addicted to drinking my caffeine from a large mug rather than a dainty cup.)

I’m not sure if I would enjoy the novel as much as I did when I was young, but of all the books I read in my youth, this is the one that I most think about revisiting. Heidi would be the other one. There is something about mountain life that is so romantic to me, though if I ever did live in the mountains, it would have to be in an area like Switzerland, where the sky is far more prevalent than the trees.



Boxer, looking like a cloud (or like an aardvark). He often reminds me of thunder when he’s running in the upstairs bedrooms of our house: he moves so fast, and his tiny feet are surprisingly loud as they scamper overhead.

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