A Piece of the World
I’ve always been a teensy bit unnerved by Andrew Wyeth’s famous painting, “Christina’s World.” I couldn’t quite put my finger on why I was drawn to it and why it struck such a deep chord. Though now that I think of it, I never let myself dwell deeply enough to find out why. I was afraid of how much it would resonate.
Christina Baker Kline’s (Orphan Train) latest novel, A Piece of the World, goes deeper than I dared, and it’s as uniquely beautiful and haunting as its painted counterpart.
A Piece of the World tells the story of Christina Olson, Wyeth’s neighbor, friend, and muse. The story is told from Christina’s perspective, giving her a voice in fiction that we never got to hear in life. Crippled by an illness (diagnoses have varied, but it’s now generally believed she suffered from Charcot-Marie-Tooth Disease), Christina is largely confined to her house, only occasionally venturing to the nearby town. Fiercely independent, she refuses to use a wheelchair, even if it means dragging herself on the ground. In spite of her constant pain, she keeps up with the heavy work required in a farmhouse with no modern conveniences. But in spite of her isolation, she has the heart and lineage of a seafaring adventurer.
In the real-life version of events, Wyeth’s wife, Betsy, introduced him to her old friend Christina, who rarely left her house by that time. But having struggled with his own illness and confinement as a child, they quickly found common ground. He began to paint her and her home into his work. Just by being, by persevering, she not only inspired her friends but the wider world, which is how this story came about.
Kline’s prose is atmospheric and beautiful. While it’s clear that her novel is a work of fiction, she also adheres to the known as much as possible, which is admirable because what we know about Christina is completely fascinating. Descended from the infamous John Hathorne, the unrepentant Chief Magistrate of the 1692 Salem Witch Trials, her forefathers fled after his death to escape the taint of their relation and eventually became seafarers. (Fun fact: this means that she was also related to Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Scarlet Letter.) In short, it’s everything we always wanted to know about “Christina’s World.”
Her history is full of triumph after tragedy. Every time I opened the book, I felt like I was sitting in the sun-washed kitchen of the farmhouse, listening to Christina share her innermost thoughts with me, her guest. I could smell her bread baking in the oven and hear the sound of the ocean crashing against the cliffs as we sipped tea and talked about the pain, the heartaches, the victories life had thrown at us.
See, that was the unnerving part of the painting that I hadn’t wanted to delve into: the pain. I battled chronic illness for most of my life, so I understand Christina. I understand what it is to have doctors give up, to feel trapped and afraid, to have to find uncomplicated answers to the inevitable question: how are you?
I get it. And I didn’t want to go there again.
But Christina’s story is one of perseverance and indomitability, and we have that in common, too. And unlike Christina, I’ve been able to see the world. Pieces, not just a piece. So I not only felt like we were kindred spirits, but also that she’s a portrait of my past. We understand each other. We know the longing and dread of being in the same place while having adventurous hearts.
This book was my catharsis. I felt pain, yes, but more than pain, I felt companionship. I will always look at Wyeth’s painting as the portrait of a friend, even as some private corner of my own heart. We all want to be seen. To be known. Together, Wyeth and Kline made that happen for Christina. And for me, too.