Prather’s Pick: A novel inspired by a portrait
April 11, 2017
Author Christina Baker Kline did a lot of research before writing "A Piece of the World," this week's new (2017) novel. It was inspired by a portrait of Christina Olson, a young woman who lived in Cushing, Maine during the 1930s-40s. The portrait was done by Andrew Wyeth
(whose father, N.C. Wyeth, and son Jamie were also famous artists).
"A Piece of the World" is historical fiction. Although it is based on Christina Olsson's life, it is not intended as a biography. According to the information on the copyright page of the book, "…the characterization and incidents presented are totally the products of the author's imagination and are used fictitiously."
The author found the portrait, "Christina's World," at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. (The reader will find a photograph of the painting in the back of the book.) Kline wrote that she studied the portrait for hours and listened to what various viewers had to say about it.
For me, the portrait is haunting. "Christina's World" is of a young woman in a light pink dress with a black belt. She is lying on her side in a field of orangish-brown (matured) grass. On a hill just beyond is two-story house with a barn behind and two outbuildings next to the house. By looking closely, the reader will notice a piece of laundry blowing in a breeze.
The reader cannot see the woman's face. It is turned, looking at — perhaps yearning for — the house. Her legs are tucked under her, and her frail arms are outstretched. The young woman's hands are positioned in such a way that she appears to be pulling herself up the hill.
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Christina's positioning in the portrait makes sense when one learns that she dealt with a degenerative disease that slowly took away the use of her arms and legs.
The novel is set in early-to-mid-20th-century America in Cushing, Maine. It begins in 1939 when the fictional Christina is working on some quilt squares in the kitchen of a two-story house on a hill. Christina and her brother live alone in the house, their childhood home. Despite her problems with mobility, Christina still does all of her chores and refuses to use a wheelchair.
This particular day, she notices a station wagon pull up to the house. It's Betsy James, a 17-year-old who spends summers in Cushing. This time she has a young man with her. He's an aspiring artist who wants to paint a picture of the house.
Over the summer, Betsy and Andy Wyeth spend many of their days with Christina and her brother Al. Eventually, Andy sets his easel and other supplies up in the upstairs of the house where he spends hours painting.
Then the novel flashes back to the time that Christina was three years old. She lives in the house with her parents, grandmother, and three brothers, and the reader learns about the family's complicated past and about their daily struggles.
The novel continues to move from past to present. Eventually Andy paints Christina's portrait. It is a fascinating read.
"A Piece of the World" is published by HarperCollinsPublishers. I picked up the softcover book in larger print, but the book is also available in hardcover. It costs about $27.99. You can also find the book at the Craig branch of the Moffat County Library, with new books. The author has also written the bestselling "Orphan Train."