A PIECE OF THE WORLD: a novel
by CHRISTINA BAKER KLINE
Morrow/Harper Collins |2017
Hardcover: 320 pages
Christina Olson/Andrew Wyeth
Source: Library Book
Shortly after completing her popular work, Orphan Train in 2013, Kline visited the NY Museum of Modern Art and viewed Andrew Wyeth’s iconic work of mid-century realism, Christina’s World (1948). Unlike Orphan Train with its vast list of characters, A Piece of the World‘s story focuses on one woman, Anna Christine Olson, a crippled spinster who lived her entire life in the harsh terrain of Cushing, Maine in a home without electricity or running water.
Andrew Wythe met Christina when he was 22, newly married and summering in Maine. The reclusive Christina, then 46 lived with her slightly younger brother, Alvaro, and together they maintained the centuries old family farm. The Olsons instinctively found themselves at ease with the painter and he soon spent every day he was in Maine at their house. Andrew, himself inflicted with disability, spent the next 20 summers lurching up the grassy slope, lugging his art supplies, to Christina’s house to paint undisturbed in a third floor room.
In 1948, when Christina was 55, Wythe observed Christina, now unable to walk at all, crawling through the field using her forearms and elbows. That sight inspired him to create Christina’s World, so named by Wyeth’s wife, Betsy. Christina is portrayed as a young woman and viewed from the back as she slowly and painfully crawls toward her home on the hill. I cropped the young woman out of the painting so the reader can see her determination to propel herself on those withered limbs through her piece of the world.
Kline, in A Piece of the World, turns Christina around so we can face this incredible strong-willed woman head-on as she tells her life’s story. First believed to have contracted polio when she was 3 years-old, it is now thought that she had CMT (Charcot-Marie-Tooth), an incurable, inherited disorder that progressively degenerates muscles tissues and touch sensation throughout the body. As this is a work of fiction based loosely on facts, Kline spares us the worst side effects of Christina’s life as her painful disease progresses through the years. Spared those details, it is still hard to imagine what it must have been like to be trapped in her steadily closing conch shell of a body.
Christina tells her story flipping from her childhood with her large extended family to her isolated and debilitating adult life.
Who are you, Christina Olson? he asked me once.
Nobody had ever asked me that. I had to think about it for awhile.
If you really want to know me, I said, we’ll have to start with the witches. And then the drowned boys, the shells from the distant lands, … The Swedish Sailor marooned in ice. [The]false smiles of the Harvard man, and the hand wringing of the Boston doctors, the dory in the haymow and the wheelchair in the sea.
Chistina Olson, Prologue
And that is all Kline and I will tell you about this remarkable woman. It is best you travel with her to find out the answer to Who are you, Christina Olson? As winter is fast approaching in Cushing, Maine, it is the perfect time to grab a hot chocolate, a warm blue knitted blanket, a comfortable chair and A Piece of the World. A woman crawling through life moves at a snail’s pace. Take the slow walk through Emily Dickinson’s poetry and the author’s simple yet beautiful prose.
Recommended reading for book clubs.