A Piece of the World

Written by Christina Baker Kline
Review by John O'Donnell

When young Andrew Wyeth first met Christina Olson at the door of her Maine farmhouse in 1939, she was a middle-aged spinster suffering from a debilitating, probably hereditary, neuropathological disease that alternately numbed and pained her limbs, and grievously compromised and eventually eroded her mobility, but never daunted her mettle. Over a decade of summers, the increasingly confident artist sketched her wasting form in an attempt to capture her brave spirit. In 1948 (and on the final three epiphanic pages of the novel) Wyeth unveiled to Olson the celebrated painting we know as Christina’s World.

Author of the best-selling Orphan Train, Christina Baker Kline frames her novel as Christina’s memoir. Advanced billing misleadingly depicts the novel as the story of the relationship of Wyeth and Olson. Not really. “Andy” is merely a seasonal summer guest whose sporadic appearances deftly juxtapose the pair’s psychic affinities and social distances. His presence—though catalytic—is not central to Christina’s preoccupations. Emily Dickinson’s life and poetry, for example, loom larger in her imagination that the gift of Wyeth’s compassionate but occasional visitations.

As with most fictional memoirs, this is a psychological novel, a tale of Christina’s dealing with her degenerative disease, ancestral ghosts, proximate family, romantic disappointment, social dislocation, witch’s curse, and the sustaining burden of memory. Kline weaves these realisms with a magical thread.

Wyeth wrote retrospectively that his challenge in rendering the iconic portrait “was to do justice to [Christina’s] extraordinary conquest of a life which most people would consider hopeless.” Christina Baker Kline has met this challenge literarily. With delicate palette, stark images, subtle tones, nuanced brushstrokes, and consummate craftsmanship, Christina Baker Kline has written this novel the way Andrew Wyeth painted the canvas. It is a masterpiece.