• Friday, October 26th, 2018

Christina Baker Kline was born and raised in 1964 in Cambridge, England and later in the American south and Maine. Her father was born in Georgia, USA and gained a PhD from Cambridge to become a British labour historian (a sub-discipline of social history) while her mother came from a long lineage of educators in North Carolina.

Despite their different backgrounds, both her southerner parents shared a love of literature and both were professors at the University of Maine.

Kline graduated from Cambridge, Yale and the University of Virginia and taught fiction and non-fiction writing, poetry, English literature, literary theory and women’s studies at Yale, New York University and the University of Virginia. She has been a Writer-in-Residence at Fordham University for four years. Christina Baker Kline lives with her husband in Montclair, New Jersey and they have three sons. She also often goes to South West Harbor, Maine where she owns a house.

A Piece Of The World, published in 2017, is Kline’s sixth novel. It was awarded the 2018 New England Prize for Fiction, the 2018 Maine Literary Award and a Silver Nautilus Award.

A Piece Of The World is fiction based on a true story about Christina Olson (1893-1968), who suffered from an incurable neuromuscular disease, gradually losing the ability to walk and use her hands and about her relationship with Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009), one of the most renowned United States painters of the twentieth century.

Wyeth’s favourite subject was painting landscapes, people and things around him. His style and subjects were mundane occurrences permeated with rhythm, beauty and intrigue.

Andrew Wyeth’s iconic 1948 painting named “Christina’s World”, which is beautifully described by Christina Olson and Andrew Wyeth by the author in the last chapter of the book, depicts the back of a woman in a pink dress, dragging her body across a barren field of tawny grass wanting to return home. He substantially expanded the size of the field compared to his model size in order to intensify the dramatic scenic moment. Also illustrated is how it represents the entire world for Christina Olson. This artwork is on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

In his painting of Christina’s World, the painter wanted to evoke the positive rather than the negative – juxtaposing the vastness of the field to Christina’s admirable courage and determination to overcome – in order to reach her target, namely her remote farm representing her very own small piece of the world.

Talking about his famous painting, Christina’s World, the artist, says: “The challenge to me was to do justice to her extraordinary conquest of a life which most people would consider hopeless. If in some small way I have been able in paint to make the viewer sense that her world may be limited physically but by no means spiritually, then I have achieved what I set out to do”.

The story begins in 1939 with forty-six-year-old Christina Olson who lives with her Brother Alvaro or Al in their family’s isolated farmhouse in the little coastal town of South Cushing, Maine. Christina, who is disabled with a gradually progressive neuromuscular disease, is sitting in the kitchen looking out of the window toward the cove when she sees young Betsy James – who later will become Andrew Wyeth’s wife – getting out of her station wagon.

Betsy is accompanied by a new acquaintance, the twenty-two-year-old Andrew, the son of the famous illustrator N. C. Wyeth, who is also an artist like his father. The relationship between Andrew Wyeth and Christina Olson starts on that day and continues until her death.

After this brief introduction, the author moves back to Christina’s childhood when she was three years old in 1896. We learn that Christina’s father is a Swedish immigrant and that her mother’s family moved from Salem, Massachusetts to Maine long ago. The author introduces the reader to Christina’s parents, brothers and Grandmother Mamey, followed by the first symptoms of Christina’s illness as well as her complicated relationship with her family.

We commiserate with Christina’s suffering when her only opportunity of happiness, love and “normal” life is shattered in her twenties by young Walton Hall, who abandons her never to be married.

A movingly sad story, depicting a woman’s exceptional perseverance in the face of adversity. She was disabled, taken out of school at the age of twelve despite being very bright, to look after her family and her unfulfilled love and only hope for happiness.

A Piece Of The World also recounts the story of a talented artist who is touchingly overwhelmed by the courage and perseverance of his muse. He is able, with compassionate brushstrokes, subtle shades and colours to reproduce and immortalise her tenacious spirit for wanting to challenge and conquer life, fighting her fate to the end.

In her story Kline brings the characters and the setting to life, illustrating Maine countryside lifestyle in the last few years of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth. She has researched all the historical facts about Christina Olson and Andrew Wyeth. She has read all the books she could find about them, visited the Olson House museum and interviewed tour guides of the museum, members of the Olson and Wyeth families and people who knew them. Kline wanted to engulf herself in Christina’s authentic world before writing her novel.

Christina Baker Kline, who cleverly manages to interlace fact with fiction, says about her book: “I liked the idea of taking a real historical moment of some significance and filling in the details, illuminating stories that have been unnoticed or obscured.” She says in one of her interviews: “I tried as much as possible to follow the true-life story of Andrew Wyeth, Christina Olson and their relationship — but also Christina’s life before he came into it”.

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Category: Book Reviews
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