Good art inspires questions; great art continues to inspire questions long after it has been viewed. It sticks to the soul.
When it comes to the work of Andrew Wyeth, both the artist and his work stick to my soul with question after question. I found myself thinking this as I read Christina Baker Kline’s new novel, A Piece of the World. It is her sixth novel and comes on the heels of her 2013 New York Times best selling novel, Orphan Train.
Imagine Andrew Wyeth’s iconic painting Christina’s World coming to life in both breath and time prior to any paint being applied to a canvas, its birth if you will. The painting, of course, is of a young woman in a pink summer dress alone in a field of parched grass. Her hair hides her face and her limbs are awkward and fragile, as she appears to be crawling towards a house on top of a hill. What is she doing? Is she hurt? Or is she a metaphor for a lost life trying to find its way home? Question begets question and before you know it you have quite a work of art on your hands.
This book is a beautifully imagined fictional memoir finely arranged and researched by an author who not only shares her first name with the woman in the painting, but also has an imaginative passion for detail. Details that drive the story to try and understand who she was and why the artist, Wyeth, was drawn to this place in Cushing, Maine.
Christina and Alvaro Olson, siblings in a long line of family dating back to the Salem Witch trials, lived in the Hathorn-Olson house that sits atop Hathorne Point. They were both born in the house, and in the end die there as well. Their graves are in a small family plot at the bottom of the same hill depicted in the now very famous painting. It is also the final resting place of Andrew Wyeth who died in 2009. Paralysis that developed in her limbs as a child progressed throughout her life, eventually crippling Christina. After her parents die, the rituals of a working life would fall on her and her brother, Álvaro. The two would stay on the farm and little by little the place would swallow them up over time.
As the reader quickly realizes, it is a story of a haunted past of changed names and a young artist’s beginning fascination and obsession to put down on canvas the life of both person and place. This compulsion would ultimately drive Wyeth to create many works based on the Olson home and its occupants.
But it is also a story about Andrew Wyeth and his wife Betsy meeting the Olson’s for the very first time. The book takes the liberty to showcase the lives as they interacted moving from 1939 to 1948 when the painting was finished and shown to Christina for the very first time. It also clearly explains the origins of the family that date back to the time of the Salem Witch trials. But the best elements of the book are the stories of childhood, teenage rebellion, love found and lost, and the story of a sister and brother living separate lives, together.
In a beautiful passage, Christina and Alvaro have just had an argument because Christina is feeling that she kept Alvaro from a very different life. The reader can easily imagine her sitting there on her chair looking out the window and saying, “Here we are, the two of us, not partners but siblings, destined to live out our lives together in the house we grew up in, surrounded by the phantoms of our ancestors, haunted by the phantom lives we might’ve lived. A stack of letters hidden in a closet. A dory in the rafters of the shed. No one will ever know, when we’re gone to dust, the life we’ve shared here, our desires and our doubts, our intimacy and our solitude.”
But their lives do live on. Christina and Alvaro are both alive in what has become Wyeth’s best-known work, which permanently hangs in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. There are also over 100 other works inspired by the house on the hill and the people who lived inside. And now too, their lives are splendidly imagined here in this finely crafted book.
This is a beautiful work by a gifted writer and it will definitely appeal to admirers of the art of Andrew Wyeth, but especially to people who find themselves reminded of a story when they see a powerful image. An image that transports them back to another time and place, and for a moment, makes them feel good.
Harper Collins Publishers, 2017 Hardcover, $27.99