Review: A Piece of the World

Here is my pre-blog review of Christina Baker Kline's A Piece of the World...

A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

I have to confess that I now realize, after reading this book, that of the many times I have seen Andrew Wyeth's famous painting Christina's World at the Museum of Modern Art that I hadn't really seen it at all. I looked at the muted colors, the brushstrokes, the broad expanse of the field, the flow of Christina's dress, the slender belt at her waist, her windblown hair, and yet, I somehow missed the too slender, awkward, wasted arms, her odd position, almost as if she is caught just as moving forward, across the field. It never occurred to me that she was dragging herself toward the house. I looked at the painting, saw 'the world,' and missed Christina. Entirely.

This novelization of the life of Anna Christina Olson, the Olson family, and their lifelong friendship with Andrew Wyeth, is most striking to me for what it reveals about what we often don't see in paintings that have become iconic. Christina Olson, who is now thought to have suffered from Charcot-Marie-Tooth Syndrome, a rare genetic neurological disorder, is literally dragging herself along the ground, as she normally did in the warm part of the year, at her home in Cushing, Maine. She eschewed use of a wheelchair (such as that used late in life by her father, who may have developed a late onset form of the disease, in the account that Kline gives us in the novel) for the mobility that crawling and dragging over any surface, including stairs, provided her. Andrew Wyeth, son of then famous painter illustrator N. C. Wyeth, arrived at the Olson family farm with Olson family friend Betsy James in 1939, echoing a visit of another family friend with a male visitor that had a sadder outcome for Christina. But Wyeth never really left, even when he was away. In search that day of eggs for his tempura paints, he remained intertwined with the Olson family and their homestead for the rest of his life, and is now buried (he died in 2009) in the Hathorn Family Cemetery, on the Olson land, with a headstone that faces the Olson farmhouse. He married Betsy James and painted from the Olson's house for many years.

Christina's World, Andrew Wyeth, MOMA
Christina's World by Andrew Wyeth (MOMA)

Wyeth painted Christina Olson a number of times over the years. In soft prose, Kline captures the stillness of their friendship, as depicted in these paintings. Wyeth saw her, capturing with a respectful intimacy, her strengths, and her struggles. He saw her constrained world but respected it. While I am unsure about the historical facts that Kline has incorporated into her book (no research annotation was provided in the ARC edition) what she does capture is the essence of an uncommon bond between Olson and Wyeth, who remained friends until Christina Olson's death in 1968. Kline definitely captures the arduous life that Olson must have lived. She presents the onset of Olson's condition as polio, which was thought to be the cause of her physical deterioration for some time, though now suspected to be incorrect. To have lived through hard Maine winters with such severe mobility limitations, in a house that had no electricity and no indoor plumbing, seems beyond my imagining.

My sole quibble with this book, especially given that it has no references provided in the form I was given to review, is that it seems to paint such a different picture of Andrew Wyeth from the one we can now read about, that I'm not sure how much credence I can then give to what I read about Anna Christina Olson. For example, in contrast to the often sober, quiet, and careful view we see of Wyeth in Kline's book, it takes little digging at all to find a rather colorful recounting of Wyeth from his own granddaughter. See here, for example. Still, this novel made me see Wyeth's painting as I had never been able to before, and to see Christina and her piece of the world. I now plan to visit the Olson House the next time I'm in Maine.

Readers may also enjoy this summary of interesting facts about the painting Christina's World here, although we clearly now know there was a brave Christina Olson at the center of this world.

Christina Olson by Andrew Wyeth             

I was fortunate to receive an Advance Reader Copy of this book.

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