Although Andrew Wyeth’s famous painting of the woman crawling through the field to a house in the distance has long evoked a sense of mystery, Christina Baker Kline attempts to explain the life of Christina Olson in her novel – A Piece of the World. The woman crawling through the grass in the famous painting “Christina’s World” was Andrew Wyeth’s neighbor in Maine. In discussing this work, Wyeth explained, “The challenge to me was to do justice to her extraordinary conquest of a life which most people would consider hopeless…she was limited physically but by no means spiritually.” The image suggests a story, and Kline fills in the unknown details of Christina’s insular life, and her role as muse to a great artist.
Although Christina suffered from a progressive crippling disease, she refused treatment or leg braces, crawling along the ground to get from place to place, amazingly without self-pity or the pity of most who knew her well. Kline fills in the background of her childhood and creates an ill-fated romance doomed by her disability and her poverty before meeting Andrew Wyeth in her forties. Living without electricity or indoor plumbing, and kept from school by her father to work the farm, Christina continued in the dilapidated house that eventually became Wyeth’s studio.
Although Christina Olson is the focus of the story, the painter, Andrew Wyeth comes to life just as convincingly. Kline connects the painter to his subject by comparing their childhoods and their outlook, and offers to fill in the blanks of their relationship. Wyeth sees beyond the rundown house and the austere restricted lives of its tenants, Christina and her brother, and produces a portrait of longing and determination not unlike his own.
At times the narrative can be as slow as the lives of the characters, perhaps reflecting the stillness of the Maine landscape, and I found myself skipping over some of the protracted dialogue. Almost like staring at the painting, reading the novel requires a patient eye to reveal more than what is obvious.
Kline summarized her research in her “Author’s Notes” at the end of the novel, and it would be wise to read both her notes and her Acknowledgments first before the novel. Her extensive reading on the lives of both the Wyeth family and Christina Olson provides a number of references worth noting, and her short summary adds meaning to how she embellished their lives in her fiction. Her description of her own young life living with her parents in a thirteenth century Cambridge cottage without central heating and on an abandoned Tennessee farm, connects her to her subject. But, the best part is the color print of Wyeth’s painting on the last page. Start from the back of the book and then begin Kline’s story.