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Friday, April 21, 2017

A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline

Reprinted from the Citizen:

A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline
Published by William Morrow ISBN 9780062356260
Hardcover, $27.99, 303 pages
Christina Baker Kline’s breakout novel was Orphan Train, which published in 2013 and is still selling well. Orphan Train brought attention to a little-known story, that between 1854 and 1929, thousands of young children were put on trains to the Midwest, stopping for people to adopt the children. Sometimes they found loving families, other times they were merely used as free labor.

Kline’s novel told that story through the character of Vivian, an elderly widow who shared her life’s story with a teenage girl doing community service work to stay out of trouble. Her next book, A Piece of the World, takes a true story, artist Andrew Wyeth’s famous painting entitled “Christina’s World”, and fictionalizes the lives of Wyeth and his model Christina Olson.

Christina Olson was born near the turn of the 20th century in the small town of Cushing, located on the rocky coast of Maine. She lived with her brothers, Sam, Fred and Alvaro, and her parents on a small farm, and times were difficult. 

She had a degenerative disease, one that left her in constant pain, and made it difficult to walk. Christina was a smart girl, and her teacher had given hope that one day Christina could be the town’s schoolteacher. 

But her illness and the subsequent debilitation of her mother and father made that dream impossible. Christina was needed at home to care for her parents and help with the farm. 

As the years went by, Christina became more of an invalid, and her brothers Sam and Fred married and moved to their own homes. Christina and Alvaro stayed home to care for their parents and the farm.

One day a summer person came by, a young woman named Betsy, bringing along a painter named Andy Wyeth. Andy’s father was a famous painter, N.C. Wyeth, and Andy fell in love with the farm. 

He called it “a place filled with stories” and maneuvered his way into Christina and Alvaro’s house, taking over an upstairs bedroom with his painting supplies. Every day, Andy would troop up to the farm and after talking with Christina, head upstairs to paint.

Andy felt that he understood Christina, because he too was sickly as a child. He was also somewhat introverted like Christina. They had a connection, and that connection led Wyeth to paint his most well-known work, “Christina’s World.”

Kline’s novel is beautifully evocative, placing you inside Christina’s world, the farmhouse on the hill, a place Christina called “sometimes a sanctuary, sometimes a prison”. 

Her writing is exquisite, and she can make you sigh with emotion, like when a young man says to Christina, “I’ve already discovered the treasure. All this time you were here, waiting to be discovered.”

She writes some emotionally charged scenes, especially the ones between Christina and her brother Alvaro as Christina fears that he is falling in love and will leave her behind. Those scenes are heartbreaking, and you can actually feel Christina’s panic and Alvaro’s pain at wanting a life of his own, but also feeling responsible for his sister. 

Kline also excels at character development. Even the less prominent characters, like Betsy and Christina’s father, are well-drawn and fleshed out. But it is Christina who owns this book, she is such a complicated, complex woman.

Her stubborness costs her friendships, and maybe even a chance at finding life in the bigger world. Her sense of responsibility may have also cost her those as well. 

Kline did a great deal of research for this novel, and reading the Author’s Note at the end gives one a terrific look at how she created this masterful novel. She spoke with members of the Wyeth family and the Olson family, and that gave her insight that adds a deeper dimension.

The Olsons were related to John Hathorne, a presiding judge at the Salem Witch Trials, and one of the women hung for witchcraft cursed the Hathorne descendents. That specter hung over Christina’s family in this novel. 

Reading A Piece of the World will send you looking for Wyeth’s painting, “Christina’s World”, which Kline helpfully includes at the end of the novel. I found myself studying it with a much deeper appreciation after reading this haunting, heartfelt novel.

I’ve read most of Kline’s novels, and A Piece of the World is by far her best work yet. If you were one of the millions who loved Orphan Train, A Piece of the World is one you must put on your To-Be-Read list. I highly recommend it.

1 comment:

  1. Our museum has a nice Wyeth collection but doesn't own Christina's World. I'm really anxious to read this book.