Review: ‘A piece of the world’ by Christina Baker Kline
The Farnsworth Museum in Rockland has scheduled five exhibitions celebrating Andrew Wyeth’s 100th birthday. Do yourself a huge favor before you go—or even if you don’t: Read “A piece of the world” by Christina Baker Kline. It’s a beautiful gift for any lover of Maine, of art, of literature.
Christina Olson was Wyeth’s real-life muse for more than two decades, starting in 1940. He painted in an upstairs room at her Cushing farmhouse, which he made famous in “Christina’s World” and which is now owned by the Farnsworth and open to the public. In her latest novel, Kline (“The Orphan Train”) seamlessly blends research and imagination to give Christina a voice. She breathes new life into Christina’s bio, from the legacy of her Salem witch trial ancestors and seafaring grandparents to her childhood and crippled “spinsterhood” living with her bachelor brother at the dilapidated family homestead.
Despite a childhood illness that leaves her in chronic pain and sets her apart, Christina has dreams of breaking free from the confines of her family, her geography and her “mutinous body.” She learns through trial after trial, though, that she can’t. Her hopes are trampled by her god-fearing mother, condescending father, a charming Harvard summer boy and bewildered doctors who cannot diagnose her debilitating disease. Her mother asks, “Why would you want to be anywhere else? All of life is in this place.”
She finds a naïve happiness when she falls in love—“this quickening, this vertiginous unfolding,” “a blur of color and sound and sensation”—which only serves to jolt her back to her reality. Bitterness and the acceptance of her loneliness ensue.
“Andy” arrives when Christina is in her 30s, and she is reminded of a different way of looking at the world. “He is gentle as a dog, as curious as a cat,” Christina thinks, as he insists on knowing everything about her family’s past and the isolation of her present life. He is kind to her and they become friends. And he paints.
When Christina sees Wyeth’s “Christina’s World,” she knows that it isn’t really a portrait of her. “He did get one thing right: Sometimes a sanctuary, sometimes a prison, this house on the hill has always been my home. I’ve spent my life yearning toward it, wanting to escape it, paralyzed by its hold on me. (There are many ways to be crippled, I’ve learned over the years, many forms of paralysis.)”
“A piece of the world,” thanks to Kline’s superb talents, is not only the story of a smart and self-aware woman who finds solace in the poetry of Emily Dickinson and deals with what life and love bring her, sometimes with grace, sometimes not. “A piece of the world” is, equally, a rich tribute to a time and place, and hardscrabble living on the Maine coast.
This eloquent and painstakingly told novel is as evocative and sensitive as the iconic painting, “Christina’s World,” that was its inspiration.
For more information on the special Andrew Wyeth 100th birthday exhibitions at the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland and about tours of the Olson House in Cushing where Christina Olson and Andrew Wyeth are buried, go to farnsworthmuseum.org.
Amy Canfield is an editor of My Generation magazine and other publications. She lives in South Portland.