CUSHING — Rainey Davis saw the notebook in Christina Baker Kline’s hands, which was not unusual for visitors to the Olson House to be carrying. Even seven decades after Andrew Wyeth finished his most famous painting, “Christina’s World,” the fascination with both his muse, Christina Olson, and the house where she lived, has hardly abated. Journalists and researchers show up regularly, notebooks in hand, ready to soak up the stolid, simple architecture and light-soaked atmosphere that Wyeth captured over the course of his lifetime.

A “newbie” was running the tour that day in 2013, but Davis was keeping an eye on things. Having started as a house guide in the Farnsworth museums in 2000, shortly after she moved to Thomaston, she was an old hand at Olson/Wyeth lore. She heard the blonde woman with the notebook say she was researching a new book, so she pulled her aside as she was leaving and told her, if she had follow-up questions, she’d be happy to help.

Davis didn’t know she was talking to the author of “Orphan Train,” which at that point, in July of 2013, had not yet begun its two-year run as a New York Times bestseller. Davis hadn’t even heard of the book, which had only come out a few months earlier.

But over the coming months and years, Davis sent Kline tidbits she thought might be helpful, starting with a floor plan of the three-story, 18th-century farmhouse. If the writer was going to try to understand Olson’s life, a map of where she spent all her days and nights was the right jumping-off point. Davis also introduced Kline to another docent, Nancy Jones, who in turn introduced her to family members of both Olson and Wyeth. Along the way, the writer and the tour guide became friends and allies of sorts in the effort to give new life to Christina Olson.

“I love docents and tour guides,” Kline said recently. The book was now a reality, called “A Piece of the World,” and published by William Morrow, her longtime publisher. Kline was in the middle of a busy summer day on the Maine leg of her book tour. She’d just given a standing room-only talk at the library in Damariscotta, followed by lunch with Davis, and now she was speeding toward the Olson House to attend a talk given by David Rockwell, a nephew of Andrew Wyeth, giving directions in between answering questions about the book’s backstory.

“They have so much knowledge, and they really like to share it,” Kline said. She checked the GPS on her phone. “Three miles, by the way.”


The Olson House docents have a broad base of knowledge gleaned from the endless cycle of people, from academics to Wyeth fans, who cycle through, often sharing their own stories about Wyeth or Olson. Some are just stories, of course, but there are nuggets in there, kernels of truth or research that flesh out the story of the artist and his muse. People like Davis listen carefully. “They are just squirreling it away,” Kline marveled. “They want the whole picture.”

Which is exactly what she wanted and needed in order to paint her own picture, with words.

Kline enters the Olson House as Rainey Davis, a docent at the house, holds the door. Davis helped with Kline with research for the book.


When she was growing up in Bangor, Kline’s father gave her a woodcut by a local artist that had been inspired by “Christina’s World.” A print of Wyeth’s painting hung in their kitchen. The family picnicked in the field in front of the Olson House once, trespassing on a spot that many Americans felt a peculiar ownership of, the spot where the lonely figure in the pink dress lay, twisted and facing away from the artist’s eye. Kline always felt a kinship with Christina Olson, who shared her name and also that of Kline’s grandmother, Christina Curtis, another woman raised on a family farm in the same time period.

The painting, and the woman in it, lodged in the back of her mind. Then one day, just after “Orphan Train” came out, a friend, another writer named Marina Budhos, mentioned that on a visit to New York’s Museum of Modern Art, she’d seen “Christina’s World.”

“She said, ‘It reminds me of you for some reason,’ ” Kline said. They were sitting on Budhos’s couch in Maplewood, New Jersey. “And it was like, that’s bizarre, it will be my next book. I just knew, right away.”


Having the subject matter was one thing; finding the story was another. As The New York Times’s review of “A Piece of the World” put it: “Anyone who was seen this work, a landmark of mid-century realism, already knows that in the course of this novel, Anna Christina Olson is unlikely to scale the peaks of high society or discover the source of the Amazon.”

Kline stands near a print of Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World” inside the Olson House while listening to David Rockwell, nephew of Wyeth, give a talk.

“It was a complicated book because nothing happens in her life,” Kline said. “She is increasingly incapacitated and never leaves her home. So I had to craft a story out of basically nothing.”

This was about the exact opposite of “Orphan Train,” another historically based story told in both present-day Maine and early 20th-century America, when orphaned or abandoned children were dispatched across the country by train, to be adopted (or in some cases, more accurately, hired to help their adoptive “parents” for no pay). Vivian, the young Irish girl in “Orphan Train,” and later 91-year-old resident of a place that sounds a bit like Bass Harbor, is literally on a journey, having different experiences at every stop. Christina barely leaves Cushing.

“Orphan Train” was Kline’s fifth novel. That it took off as it did, selling over 3 million copies worldwide, surprised even her. (That runaway train is still running and a second movie option is in the works; the first fell through for financial and script reasons.) She’d done deep research for that book as well, interviewing people who had been on the actual orphan trains, which operated between 1854 and 1929.

But Vivian was a character born of Kline’s imagination, albeit a well-researched one. This time she was imagining an inner life from what facts she could gather. Christina Olson died having spent her whole life in that house, much of it with just her brother Alvaro for companionship. But she’d had a romance, starting when she was 20, with a Harvard student visiting for the summer. He ended it with her after four years, breaking her heart (“Walton’s attention is like a sun high in the sky, so bright, so blinding, that everything else fades in contrast,” Kline opens one chapter.) Kline used a biography co-written by Olson’s niece, Jean Olson Brooks, to mine their actual letters for material.

But the book begins with the all-important meeting between Wyeth and his muse, on a July afternoon in 1939, when one of the Cushing neighbors, Betsy James (later Wyeth’s wife), shows up at the door with a handsome young man who immediately paints a picture of the Olson house. In the book, it’s this relationship, between artist and muse, that offers the most solace to a lonely woman, and fittingly, Kline ends the book with Olson’s first glimpse of the painting called “Christina’s World,” a work that makes her feel understood.


Author Christina Baker Kline stands near a print of “Christina’s World” inside the Olson House in Cushing while listening to David Rockwell, nephew of Andrew Wyeth, give a talk. Baker Kline has written a fictionalized account of Christina Olson, the model for Andrew Wyeth’s famous painting, Christina’s World and was helped in her research by Rainey Davis, a docent at the Olson House who is standing to the right of Baker Kline.


The list of research materials Kline used to understand her subject would fill the rest of this page: documentaries, biographies of Wyeth, books of art criticism, nonfiction books like Louise Dickinson Rich’s “We Took to the Woods,” just to get a feel for life in Olson’s era. She watched a film about a contemporary woman with Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, a rare neurological disorder that doctors have concluded is likely what ailed Olson (rather than polio, as was the popular theory back in the 1970s, when that print was hanging on Kline’s kitchen wall). She even attended a lecture at the National Society of Clinical Rheumatology conference in 2015, accompanied by Nancy Jones (Davis has sent her an article from The Pharos medical journal about the theory).

“I can’t believe how much research she does,” Davis said. “She really immerses herself.”

Kline said she drew the line at interviewing anyone who was a character in the book (like Betsy Wyeth) because that “would have felt too weird.”

Then she fact-checked. Before she sent “A Piece of the World” out into the world, Kline shared it with the people who had helped with her research. Not just Rainey Davis and Jones, but Michael Komanecky, chief curator at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland. Wyeth’s nephew, David Rockwell, also read the galleys. She incorporated feedback, like a suggestion of a better place Olson might have hidden her love letters with the Harvard man, or a description of how Olson did housework (often by pushing things).

Davis said she gave Kline a few notes and felt heard.


“There were a couple of things that I didn’t think that were necessarily appropriate to be included,” Davis said. “And they weren’t in the final copy of the book.”

“I didn’t change anything about my portrayal of these people,” Kline said. “I didn’t sugarcoat anything or whitewash anything. But I did get lots of really granular detail by paying lots of attention to the people in the know.”

Rockwell being one. Olson and her brother Alvaro were key figures in his childhood; he used to ride into town with Alvaro hoping to get candy at the store.

“How lucky was I to have access to this man?” Kline said.

But also, she concedes, a little “intimidating.”

Perhaps the most challenging thing about fictionalizing a real person, even if he or she is dead, may be dealing with readers’ responses to someone they perhaps knew, or simply felt they knew. During a recent reading at the Brandywine Conservancy and Museum of Art in Pennsylvania, Kline was delighted to be greeted by Helga Testorf, Wyeth’s second key muse (she of the braids), who asked her to sign her book. “She called it ‘your very fine book,’ ” Kline said. So far so good; no blowback from intimates or experts.


“I mean, there probably will be someday,” Kline added.

A few minutes later, she was leaning up against the wall in Christina Olson’s dining room. David Rockwell was giving his talk – he gives these regularly at the Olson House – and passing around family photos. Someone raised a hand to ask if this was the same room where Olson slept on a pallet after stairs became too hard to navigate, a tidbit that she’d picked up reading from “A Piece of the World.”

Kline said yes, but then looked to Rockwell to affirm it.

“You were looking at me, and I was like, ‘Am I wrong?’ ” she said.

Another woman, who had already quizzed Rockwell on a few things, such as whether Olson was wearing gloves in “Christina’s World” (she thought yes, Rockwell told her no) wondered who was the model for various parts of the woman in pink (Betsy for the torso). “I read just the opposite,” she told him. “It was Betsy’s arms.”

You could see the ownership issues involved with what is one of the most iconic American paintings of all time. The woman turned her attention to Kline.


“Now is your book a historical novel?” she asked.

“It’s a novel inspired by her life,” Kline began to answer. “It’s about really the relationship … ”

The woman cut her off.

“But you’ve got the facts,” she pressed on, her tone a little skeptical. “The real facts in there?”

Rainey Davis chimed in. “The real facts.”

“It’s pretty close, pretty close,” Rockwell said. “Very good.”


It’s good to have friends in the Olson House.

Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at:

Twitter: MaryPols

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