A Piece of the Worldby Christina Baker Kline
Reviewed by Sue Ellis
Christina Baker Kline's latest novel, A Piece of the World, is a fictionalized account of the life of Christina Olson, subject of the famous painting, Christina's World, by Andrew Wyeth.
Christina Olsen was crippled by a virus at age three. Local doctors had no idea what caused the progressive wasting of her limbs, but she eventually had to crawl to leave the house, refusing the use of a wheelchair. Late in life she met Andrew Wyeth when he became enthralled by the old farmhouse in Cushing, Maine, where she had always lived.
Wyeth's place in the story is as important as Christina's, his dogged determination to paint what he feels at the place that greatly moves him. At first it's the location that calls to him, the land and the buildings in their coastal setting, but his attention eventually falls upon the people he comes to know.
Her parents are a salt-of-the- earth couple who expect more of Christina than seems reasonable. They refuse to baby her, even when she is very young, but she rises to the occasion in one gripping chapter after another. While still in her twenties, a relationship springs to life when the crippled girl meets a student who summers in Cushing.
Here's an excerpt where Christina overhears her parents discussing her and her boyfriend:
"She's no beauty, but she works hard. I think she'd make a fine companion," Papa is saying.
"She would," Mother says. "But I'm beginning to wonder if he's toying with her."
My face tingles as I realize they're talking about me. I lean against the wall, straining to hear.
"Who knows? Perhaps he wants to run the farm."
"Mother laughs, a dry bark. "That one? No."
"What does he want with her then?"
"Who knows? To fill his idle time, I suppose."
"Maybe he really does love her, Katy."
"I fear . . ." Mother's voice trails off. "That he will not marry her."
Papa says, "I fear it too."
By the time Wyeth appears and installs himself at the farmhouse, Christina's scars, both physical and mental, have honed her into a person who is both admirable and pitiable (and ultimately paintable).
William Morrow, an imprint of Harper Collins PublishersISBN 978-0-06-2356277
Many of you will have read Orphan Train, a well loved work by this same author, so you know Christina Baker Kline is a writer of considerable talent.
Using Christina's relationships with her family and friends, she enables us to see into the soul of a woman gone bitter with her insistence that people ignore her physical plight and treat her like anyone else. The story is told by switching back and forth between Christina's early life and young adulthood to her meeting with Wyeth when she's an old woman. It's an effective way to focus on her relationship with Wyeth while gradually revealing her past and the forces that have shaped her into the person that piqued his artistic interest.
So much of the story is based on fact that it's easy to be fascinated by the history, but even more beguiling to let the author take us to that atmospheric plane between fact and what she imagines for us. This one's a winner.