9/6/17

Christina Baker Kline's Triumphant Look at Christina's World

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A PIECE OF THE WORLD (2017)
Christina Baker Kline
William Morrow Publishing, 325 pages.
★★★★ ½

A weathered frame house and farm buildings sit atop a timothy-covered slope, but our gaze is diverted to the lower foreground, where we see the back of a spindly dark-haired woman twisting her way up the hillside on thin arms and unmoving legs. Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World is among the two or three most famous American paintings of all time, but what do we know of its subject: Christina Olson (1893-1968)? A quick search reveals that she was nearly immobile by the time Wyeth completed the painting in 1948, a victim of Charcot-Marie-Tooth Disease, a form of muscular dystrophy. But who was Christina? What was her family life like? What did she think and dream?

Christina Baker Kline snared me with this early passage in her subject’s voice:

People think the painting is a portrait, but it isn’t. Not really. He [Wyeth] wasn’t even in the field; he conjured it from a room in the house from an entirely different angle. He removed rocks and trees and outbuildings. The scale of the barn is wrong. And I am not that frail young thing, but a middle-aged spinster. It’s not my body, really, and maybe not even my head. He did get one thing right: Sometimes a sanctuary, sometimes a prison, that house on the hill has always been my home. I’ve spent my life yearning toward it, wanting to escape it, paralyzed by its hold on me.

This lovely passage sets the tone for the life that lay beneath Wyeth’s canvas—one marked by history, family, longings, lost opportunities, and seized relationships that give Christina Olson a breathing subjectivity that not even as draftsman as skilled as Wyeth could capture.

We learn about the house—built on Hathorne* Point, Maine by Captain Samuel Hathorne II in 1743, and remodeled by generations of Hathornes, all descendants of Salem witchcraft judge John Hathorne who fled to Maine to escape the ignominy of that surname. Christina’s mother, Katie, bore Hathorne blood, though her feisty nature might have gotten her in trouble had she been born in Salem 200 years earlier. It was probably fated that she’d marry a man whose name changed from Johan Olauson to John Olson. The Olsons would have been just another big farm family with its joys and tragedies had not Andrew Wyeth arrived in 1939—a dozen years after Katie died and four since John’s passing. By then, the only Olsons left in the house were Christina and her devoted brother Alvaro.

Kline fleshes out the deeper family histories in ways that remind us that frozen images are lies. The inherent sadness of a self-sacrificing brother caring for his crippled sister in a remote part of Maine tells us nothing about the various turns in people’s lives that led to one path being chosen rather than another. MD is a progressive disease. Christina had a hard life; she fell down a lot, but she didn’t always emulate a crab to move from place to place. As we learn from the novel, she even fell in love with a summer visitor—and it wasn’t Andy Wyeth, twenty-three years her junior, whose presence in Maine began with his courtship of a different Cushing local: his future wife, Betsy James, who knew the Olsons. Andy emerges as Christina’s kindred spirit—a young man who had been sickly as a child, understood Christina’s plight, and befriended her as an equal, not an object of pity. He spent thirty summers in Cushing, coming and going as he wished to a makeshift studio in unused second-floor rooms of the Olson house.

A Piece of the World is a novel that imagines dialogue, discussions, and circumstances, but it hews closely to what is known of its subjects. Kline hails from Bangor and knows Maine life too well to sanitize it. Her prose is lovely, but it’s not rose-hued—more like the somber earth tones Wyeth used. There is something inherently honest about this, with the joys shimmering brighter in contrast to the sorrow and the lonely family cemetery beyond where Christina is posed in the painting. It is a triumphant novel which, ironically, Christina’s World was not until much later. Wyeth called it “a complete flat tire,” and the Museum of Modern Art purchased it for just $1,800. Today its value would be in the millions. Wyeth’s relationship with Christina was a greater treasure, though; when he passed in 2009, per his will he was laid to rest in the Olson graveyard.

Rob Weir

*You will find various spellings of this name, including Hathorn and Hawthorn. Colonial spelling was not standardized.  

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