In 1948, Andrew Wyeth painted “Christina’s World,” the iconic portrait of Anna Christina Olson lying on a grassy hill, gazing up at a weathered farmhouse. Wyeth, who spent summers near Cushing, Maine, befriended Christina and her brother Alvaro and from 1940-1968 worked out of a third-floor studio in their home, often using the Olson siblings as subjects of his paintings.
In her latest novel, “A Piece of the World,” Christina Baker Kline, author of the highly acclaimed novel “Orphan Train,” imagines what Christina’s life and her friendship with Wyeth were like.
As in “Orphan Train,” Kline alternates chapters, going back and forth in time (from 1896-1948) with riveting effect. We see a young girl struggle with a muscle disease that worsens. We see a teenager fall miraculously in love with a dashing Harvard student who reciprocates that love. We feel the pain and embarrassment when the man jilts her, and we are witness to the sad state of her eventual spinsterhood.
Over the years, two of Christina’s brothers marry and move away, but one stays to care for her. Crippled by what appears to be extreme arthritis, Christina refuses to use a wheelchair and pulls herself along on hands, knees and elbows. Eventually, the farm falls into disrepair and the unremitting tasks of Christina’s days (cooking, cleaning, caring for her aging parents and her brother) seem a sort of prison.
But then 23-year-old Andy Wyeth walks up the hill with his tackle box of paints and sees Christina in a new light. “He doesn’t register alarm at the way we live,” Christina thinks. “He just settles in and observes.”
Wyeth has said that he was inspired to paint Christina when, from the third floor studio, he witnessed her doggedly pulling herself up the hill. “The challenge to me,” he wrote, “was to do justice to her extraordinary conquest of life which most people would consider hopeless.”
As Christina tells the story, as her young and old selves converge, there is a steady progression, a sort of painful trek along a dark and narrowing path. But when Wyeth appears — with his vivacious wife, Betsy, and his gift of observing the world — the landscape brightens, and there is light in Christina’s world.
“Through his eyes I am newly aware of all the parts of this place, seen and unseen,” Christina thinks. “Late-afternoon shadows in the kitchen, fields returned to flower, the flat nails that secure the weathered clapboards, the drip of water from the rusty cistern, cold blue light through the cracked window.”
Like Wyeth’s paintings, this is a vivid novel about hardscrabble lives and prairie grit and the seemingly small but significant beauties found there.
Christine Brunkhorst is a Minneapolis writer and reviewer.
A Piece of the World
By: Christina Baker Kline.
Publisher: William Morrow, 309 pages, $27.99.
Events: 7 p.m. March 6, Barnes & Noble Galleria, Edina; 7 p.m. March 7, River Falls Library, River Falls, Wis., hosted by Chapter 2 Books, Hudson, Wis