On the heels of her acclaimed novel, “Orphan Train,” Christina Baker Kline turns her attention to rural life in the first half of the 20th century. Sparked by Andrew Wyeth’s renowned 1948 painting, “Christina’s World,” which depicts a woman lying in a field, her face hidden from view, looking toward a house on a hill, Kline wanted to know more about this woman. Who was she, and what kind of life did she lead?
In her absorbing new novel, “A Piece of the World,” Kline uses the historical record to lay the groundwork, then reimagines life as Christina Olson might have lived it. The result is a portrait of Maine farm life, of an iron-willed spinster with polio and the accidental friendship that changes everything.
As the book opens, Betsy James, a teenager who summers in Cushing, stops to visits her older neighbor, Christina Olson, on a nearby farm. Betsy asks whether her new friend, Andy, can paint a picture of Christina’s house. The friend turns out to be a young Andrew Wyeth, and Betsy, his soon-to-be wife. From the first meeting with Christina, Andy conveys a disarming candor and charm that will become his hallmark. Throughout the story, he ambles in and out of the house, coming and going at will, leaving a trail of broken eggshells from the mixing of tempera paint. He proves to be a welcome reprieve from the rigors of farm life and the insular world Christina inhabits.
Christina narrates the book, alternating between her early and later years. Throughout, she battles with a life of near-confinement. At her father’s insistence, Christina left school at age 12 to work on the farm, thus ending her dream of becoming a teacher. She had few friends and little opportunity. A summer romance with a Harvard man ended badly, further dimming her hopes for a different life.
Still there was a larger obstacle that would wreak havoc on Kline’s stubborn and prickly protagonist: Born with a degenerative disease that would become disabling, Christina routinely resisted help. As her mobility fails, she refuses even to use a wheelchair and would rather crawl on her elbows to a neighbor’s house than accept a ride. All the while, she haltingly goes about her litany of chores – cooking and sewing, attending to her ailing parents and ongoing tasks around the farm.
“Everything comes back to this body, this faulty carapace,” she says. Then later: “The pain has become part of me, just something I live with, like my pale eyelashes.”
The centerpiece of the story is the bond that forms between Christina and Andy. Their age disparity notwithstanding – Christina was 46, Andy 22 when they met – they serve as mirrors for each other. Andy, himself hobbled by a twisted right leg, bad hip and a residual limp, is unfazed by Christina’s infirmity, a stark contrast to others whose pity she detests.
“You’re like me,” he says. “You get on with it. I admire that.”
Their scenes together, just talking, and the scenes of Andy working, figuring the angles and details of his portraits and landscapes, are among the most appealing in the book. Through his eyes, Christina sees ordinary tools and objects in a new way. The rote familiarity of the farm becomes transformed. Yet it’s Andy’s acceptance of things as they are that Christina finds so heartening.
“Andy doesn’t usually bring anything, or offer to help. He doesn’t register alarm at the way we live. He doesn’t see us as a project that needs fixing,” Kline writes. “All the things that most people fret about, Andy likes. There’s more grandeur in the bleached bones of a storm-rubbed house, he declares, than in drab tidiness.”
Although Andy has been painting Christina’s brother, Al, he has yet to ask Christina to pose for him. At first she demurs, until Andy points out that she’s always posing. By that he means that she’s accustomed to people’s concern, “used to being observed, but not really…. seen.” His comment is so astute that she can’t refuse. And so the famed, eponymous painting gets underway.
This book about hardship and pride, friendship and empathy, starts slowly before finding its pace. Once there, the story moves briskly. In the hands of a lesser writer, Christina’s plight might seem unwieldy or mawkish. Yet Kline, who splits her time between New Jersey and Maine, has a graceful, arresting style that lifts the narrative, and her portrayal of Andy leavens the entire story. For as much as we learn about the life and times of Christina Olson, it’s Kline’s rendering of Andrew Wyeth – decent, charming, wise – that leaves us wanting more.
Joan Silverman writes op-eds, essays and book reviews. Her work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Chicago Tribune and Dallas Morning News.