A Piece of the World Christina Baker Kline (2017)
Novels that prominently feature a painting (fictional or real) are not a new idea. In 1891, Oscar Wilde published The Picture of Dorian Gray, a horror story about a portrait that ages while the subject of the portrait remains youthful—but gets nastier. More recently, Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring takes a different tack. In her 1999 novel, Chevalier imagines a life story from the actual portrait of an anonymous young woman. In this case, the art work, by the seventeenth-century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer, is real, hanging in the Mauritshuis in The Hague. The fictional story by Chevalier evokes the period of the painting’s creation beautifully. (See the Vermeer portrait here.)
Christina Baker Kline’s A Piece of the World has an approach similar to that of Chevalier. Baker Kline conjures up a fictional memoir by the subject of Christina’s World, a 1948 painting by the American artist Andrew Wyeth that hangs in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. In this case, some facts about the actual subject, Christina Olson, are known. Olson really was descended from one of the judges at the Salem Witch Trials of the late seventeenth century. She was born in 1893 and lived on a farm near Cushing, Maine, suffering all her life from a disability that affected her ability to move her limbs. In 1939, she became friends with Andrew Wyeth, who summered in Maine and frequently painted her, her brother, and scenes from their farm. As Olson grew older, she became more disabled and moved from place to place by crawling. In his painting Christina’s World, Wyeth places Olson on the ground, with her back to the viewer, clawing the soil as she twists to look at her farmhouse, which is up a hill from her. (See the Wyeth painting here.)
Beyond the historical facts, Baker Kline weaves a fictional life, narrated by a fictional Christina Olson but quite believable. (The only parts of the narrative that I found somewhat strained were the dialogues between Wyeth and Olson.) Baker Kline invents a full life for Olson, from her birth until the unveiling of Wyeth’s expressive painting of her. The onus of disability for those in rural areas and without access to current medical treatments is clear. (For another novel about disability, see my review here.)
Christina Olson and her family live a life of austerity, particularly during the Great Depression, without electricity or running water in their house. Their daily existence is like that of a pioneer family in the nineteenth century. Baker Kline describes their chores in detail: the stoking of the wood burning stove, the lighting of the kerosene lamps, the hand harvesting of the blueberries. These activities, and the grim farmhouse, attracted the eye of Wyeth, who painted a vanishing way of life with its surrounding stark landscapes. It strikes me that A Piece of the World has many characteristics of a Laura Ingalls Wilder novel, albeit set in Maine and written for adults.
As I was reading A Piece of the World, I turned frequently to the reproduction of the painting Christina’s World bound into the back of the book. This tender novel about a woman’s simple life complements Wyeth’s haunting work of art.