A Piece of the World
Growing up, my aunt and uncle had a large framed print of Andrew Wyeth’s painting, Christina’s World, hung on the wall of their family room. I vividly remember staring at the bleak depiction of a young woman, visible only from the back, in a seemingly troubled, half-reclined pose, gazing upon a grim-looking farmhouse in the distance. To me, it seemed like this poor girl was in jeopardy. Her hair and dress looked disheveled, as if she had fled some horrible trauma inflicted upon her, and was just biding her time until she could return to the stark farmhouse on the hill. But if you ask around, there are as many different interpretations of this haunting portrait as there are stars in the sky.
Christina Baker Kline, author of the bestselling historical novel ORPHAN TRAIN, reinterprets Wyeth’s compelling painting, or, more specifically, its subject. Looking like a young farm girl, Christina Olson was, in actuality, an unmarried middle-aged woman. She is not sprawled amidst the wheat fields of Kansas, as I had assumed, but rather is on her family’s homestead in coastal Maine, where she lived her entire life. How did this unremarkable woman become the subject of one of the most recognizable paintings of the past two centuries? How did she come to know Andrew Wyeth, the youngest son of well-known artist N.C. Wyeth? What is this woman’s story? Kline skillfully creates Christina’s backstory in her fascinating sixth novel.
"A PIECE OF THE WORLD is a welcome and worthy addition to Christina Baker Kline’s previous novels, and gives a hauntingly beautiful depiction of the woman behind one of the most beloved works of American art."
When Wyeth first approached Hathorn House in Cushing, Maine, in the summer of 1939, he could have had no idea he was about to meet the inspiration and subject of his most famous work. Introduced by Betsy James, his soon-to-be-wife and family friend of the inhabitants, Christina and her brother, Alvaro, Wyeth was immediately inspired by the cozy but dilapidated farmhouse and intrigued by the circumspect woman living within. Still in the nascent stage of his artistic development and desperately wanting to distinguish himself from his famous father, Wyeth was looking for inspiration and found it in his beloved Maine: “I’m trying to capture...something. The feel of this place, not the place itself, exactly. D.H. Lawrence --- he was a writer, but also a painter --- wrote this line: ‘Close to the body of things, there can be heard the stir that makes us and destroys us.’ I want to do that --- get close to the body of things.”
Wyeth took a room in the old farmhouse to use as his studio, and the Olson siblings were his makeshift models. He recognized a kindred spirit in Christina. Also sickly as a child, Wyeth was home-schooled by his father. Christina, whose legs were rendered practically useless by a cruel, unknown disease (likely undiagnosed polio), could well understand his isolation: “When your world is small, you learn every inch of it.”
Christina came by her lamentable affectation honestly. Suffering with her debilitating illness from late childhood, and having once tasted a life outside of her protected Maine homestead, she was well acquainted with regret. When she was 20, she fell in love with Walton Hall, a summer visitor to Cushing and a student at Harvard. For a second, Christina let herself dream of a life other than the one she'd always known: “It’s clear to me now that for twenty years I have gone through the motions of each day like a dumb animal, neither daring to hope for a different kind of life nor even knowing enough to desire one.” But that life wasn’t meant to be, and she had sadly realized and accepted her lot in life: “Everything comes back to this body, this faulty carapace. How I wish I could crack it open and leave it behind.”
But with Wyeth, Christina formed an easy bond that didn’t require much work. Over the years, the pair developed a familiar and unique working relationship, each one knowing what it felt like to be “...shackled by the past even though it’s populated by ghosts.” And in the summer of 1948, Wyeth finally “gets to the body of things” by having Christina pose for him half-reclining in the midst of tall grass, with her back to him, wearing a fading pink cotton dress, letting the whole world have a peak into her private one. A moment “to see her life from a distance, as clear as a photograph, as mysterious as a fairy tale.”
A PIECE OF THE WORLD is a welcome and worthy addition to Christina Baker Kline’s previous novels, and gives a hauntingly beautiful depiction of the woman behind one of the most beloved works of American art. Alternating between Christina’s painful past and her time spent with the artist in the 1940s, Kline breathes life and breadth into Wyeth’s stirring but one-dimensional image, offering readers a keenly observed fictional chronicle of one woman’s “mutinous body,” her desire to conquer it, and the one man who had the sensitivity to truly see her.
Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller on February 24, 2017