Montclair novelist takes a trip into Christina's world

Christina Baker Kline, of Montclair, has written another engaging novel, this one based on the life of the woman in Andrew Wyeth's famous painting.Karin Diana  "A Piece of the World" By Christina Baker Kline (William Morrow, 309 pp, $27.99) When I...

Montclair novelist takes a trip into Christina's world

Christina Baker Kline, of Montclair, has written another engaging novel, this one based on the life of the woman in Andrew Wyeth's famous painting.Karin Diana  "A Piece of the World" By Christina Baker Kline (William Morrow, 309 pp, $27.99) When I...

26 February 2017 Sunday 07:43
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Montclair novelist takes a trip into Christina's world

Christina Baker Kline, of Montclair, has written another engaging novel, this one based on the life of the woman in Andrew Wyeth's famous painting.Karin Diana 

"A Piece of the World"

By Christina Baker Kline

(William Morrow, 309 pp, $27.99)

When I was a kid, my dentist's office offered wonderful attractions: laughing gas, a treasure chest of trinkets and, in the waiting room, a painting of a solitary woman.

The copy of Andrew Wyeth's "Christina's World" always intrigued. Maybe it was the golden field, exotic to an inner city girl. Gazing at the 1948 painting at MoMA still draws me in, though I never imagined her life.

Happily, Montclair's Christina Baker Kline did and the result is an engaging read. Kline's wonderful "Orphan Train" also explored the rough majesty of Maine and the inner lives of women. Here, she reaches deep into Christina's world.

Born in 1893, Christina Olson was afflicted with a debilitating illness, never properly diagnosed or treated. Reared on a farm that had been in her family for generations, Christina lived in a way not markedly different from a farm girl's life in the 1700s. Her grandmother, who lived with the family, passed down the family stories, including how one ancestor was a cruel judge during the Salem witch trials.

The book flits back and forward in time, a device I found jolting. Still, Kline does a magnificent job making readers feel, on a cellular level, the harshness and unsullied beauty of this life. The farmhouse was not electrified, the water came from a pump, the outhouse was out back and the fires needed constant stoking. Christina, though, defines determination. She comes from strong stock.

Her father, who had been a sailor, left a very tough life in Sweden and met Christina's mother by knocking on the farmhouse door on the Maine coast. Years later, when Christina discovers mementos in a box in the box, she asks her usually taciturn dad about his life.

"And that's when he tells me about the squalid, low-ceilinged two-room hut in the village of Gallinge that his family of ten shared with a cow, their surest hedge against starvation. His father, a drunkard with two moods, brooding and raging, who terrorized him and his seven younger siblings and worked occasionally at a peat farm as a day laborer when he was desperate enough. Papa's own constant stomach-churning hunger."

Based on the real Christina Olson, the woman in Andrew Wyeth's "Christina's World," author Christina Baker Kline offers a poignant view of Christina's life. 

Incredibly resilient and stubborn, Christina wills her body to move, falling constantly, bruising herself yet she always drags herself up and perseveres. She is also so smart her teacher hopes that Christina can someday become the teacher in the rural school.

It's her only possible career, a chance for an independent life. Marriage is unlikely because of her disability and the family meets so few people given the farm's remoteness.

Against the odds, she meets a young man, the family friend of a family that summers nearby.

"One day Walton shows up alone on a bicycle. He's wearing a pin-striped sack coat and a straw boater, not the kind of hat any man around here would wear. (For that matter, they don't wear pin-striped sack coats either.) Around my brothers he looks slightly preposterous, like a peacock in a cluster of turkeys."

Friendship and genuine romance follow and readers can only hope that Christina will find lasting love. Other joys are denied her such as simple physical tasks. Her parents did not allow her to continue with school; she was needed around the farm. Every day of Christina's life is conscribed by chores. Despite her limitations, Christina does every domestic task and without complaint. That doesn't mean she was a saint.

She has every reason to be bitter, but an acerbic tongue only gets unleashed on one rather deserving woman, though another time she is less than welcoming to a potential sister-in-law. Some brothers move on, but one stays. And through the years there are some good friends, including the painter Wyeth.

"All of the things that most people fret about, Andy likes. The scratches made by the dog on the blue shed door. The cracks in the white teapot. The frayed lace curtains and the cobwebbed glass in the windows. He understands why I'm content to spend my days in the chair in the kitchen, feet up on the blue-painted stool, looking out at the sea, getting up to stir the soup now and then or water the plants, and letting this old house settle into the earth."

Wyeth remained the Olsons' friend for decades and painted the haunting portrait of the woman in the field. Though he gave Christina depth and beauty in a harsh light, Kline gives us her essence and much to ponder.

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