A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline (2017)

“The most important qualities a human can possess are an iron will and a persevering spirit.” 22

Oh, my! How to describe this gorgeous, epic, masterpiece of historical fiction? It is a daunting task. Christina Baker Kline has unearthed a treasure-trove of research on Christina Olson — a disabled woman who lived during the first-half of the twentieth century almost elusively on her family’s farm in rural Maine, and who became the unlikely subject of many paintings by Andrew Wyeth — into a fictional heroine whose “iron will, persevering spirit,” and New England grit enrich and enliven the pages of A Piece of the World.

Expertly blending fact and fiction, Baker Kline tells the story of Christina and Andrew Wyeth, but also the far reaching tale of Christina’s ancestors and the small town of Cushing, Maine where her family built the farm that would be the center, for better or for worse, of Christina’s world. Rather than telling the story of Andrew Wyeth’s famous paintings, specifically Christina’s World, by writing a book about Wyeth’s life: Baker Kline tells us the story of Christina Olson — a woman whose struggles, heartaches, and determination history would never have known if not for the painting — a woman whose life stories were compelling enough to serve as the inspiration for one of Wyeth’s masterpieces, even if they were overlooked by her peers.

christinas world wyeth

Christina’s World, Andrew Wyeth

The book begins in 1896, with four-year old Christina suffering from a terrible illness that causes her arms and legs to lose forever some of their function. At first, Christina’s strong-willed parents and grandmother refuse to let this ruin her life: she is still encouraged to play with her brothers, explore the fields of their farm and the beaches it borders. For both Christina’s well-being and because life on a farm depends on everyone, the family still requires the young girl care for the animals, prepare meals, mend clothes, care for her brothers, and a long list of other chores. Despite the extra time it takes her, and the injuries she endures in the process; Christina does what is asked of her without question.

As Christina’s story unfolds, she shares with readers the stories of her ancestors — witch-hunters in Salem, world-traveling seamen, grim-faced and determined farmers — whose ghosts (and, more tangibly, their souvenirs) live with the family in the farmhouse. The stories of these predecessors are kept alive through the stories her Mamey tells, “Her favorite things are timeworn. Each one of them with its own story to tell.” 32

As she grows, it becomes clear that Christina is very bright. She excels at school work and in her farm and fishing chores. She falls in love with school and hopes her intellect will allow her a life beyond the borders of the farm. Her father has his own ideas: she will leave school at twelve and dedicate herself to serving her family. There will be no more school, no career. Her hands are needed to feed and clothe the growing family; and more importantly, she is told, her disability makes it impossible that she can do what others can.

As she grows, we come to love Christina’s bright mind and rich imagination. Her lush descriptions and poetic voice bring vividly to life to her corner of Maine and the bounty it offers throughout the seasons. Even though her worsening paralysis means her life is very physical demanding and, at times, humiliating; Christina feels honored to have such a gorgeous setting for her childhood.

As she becomes a young woman, Christina’s loneliness increases. Her brothers leave home for adventures denied to her (because of her gender and disability), the other young women around her marry and have children, and her only prize is even more work to make the farm run. When a summer romance in her twenties begins to look promising, Christina falls in love and for the first time she glimpses a hope that her life can be something more. “‘It is terrible to find the love of your life Christina,’ Mamey says. ‘You know too well what you’re missing when it gone.'” (18)

When she is cruelly discarded for a wealthy, able-bodied, better-educated woman; Christina retreats almost completely within in herself; her dreams shelved, her heart-hardened, her body growing more and more defiant. Life unfolds — wars happen, people marry, babies are born — for everyone else, but Christina’s life remains the same. The house, the farm, and the ocean it borders solidify as her domain. “I will be alone in the house on the hill, with nothing to look forward to but the slow change of seasons, my own aging and infirmity, the house turning to dust.” (183) Out of desperation, she bullies her brother Al into staying with her, without whom she could not live alone, and he becomes her only companion.

When a young girl from town brings a young painter to her door in 1939 — a door to a house now in complete disrepair due to Christina’s disability and Al’s indifference — Christina meets Andrew Wyeth. In his paintings, the farm comes back to life, its former beauty restored, and its surroundings once again magical. Their prison is suddenly partially restored to the lush playground of their youth.

“I read once that the act of observing changes the nature of what is observed. This is certainly true for Al and me. We are more attuned to the beauty of this old house, with its familiar corners, when Andy is here. More appreciative of the view down the yellow fields to the water, constant yet ever changing, the black crows on the barn roof, the hawk circling overhead. A grain bag, a dented pail, a rope hanging from a rafter: the ordinary objects and implements are transformed by Andy’s brush into something timeless and otherworldly.” 94

Andrew’s presence also breaths life back into Christina’s inner world. His intense interest in the stories and souvenirs of her ancestors bring the ghosts back to life. Her once vivid imagination is given another chance to soar. Andrew wants to know about Christina’s view of the world, her thoughts about books, poetry, nature, and her encyclopedic knowledge of the farm, beach, animals, house…knowledge that is foreign to a wealthy, urban man and growing faint as the country moves toward the 1950.

Baker Kline’s gorgeous prose brings to life an unlikely heroine in Christina. A woman who was denied so much, asked to shoulder unimaginably heavy burdens, humiliated and pitied throughout her life, but never-the-less was a woman of heart, substance, intellect, and a fierce determination that allowed her to preserve something for herself, even when the world wanted to take it from her.