“A Piece of the World,” by Christina Baker Kline. William Morrow. 309 pages. $27.99.
Art and artists are hot fodder for fiction. Consider “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” about the Vermeer painting, and Dawn Tripp’s recent novel about Georgia O’Keeffe, “Georgia.”
Christina Baker Kline, whose novel “Orphan Train” was a New York Times bestseller, plunges into the mysterious “Christina’s World” for her latest novel, “A Piece of the World.”
The Andrew Wyeth painting, of the crippled Christina Olson lying in a field with her Maine farmhouse in the distance, has become iconic, inspiring copies, satires, even cartoon references. As Tripp did with “Georgia,” Baker Kline takes the bold step of telling this story in the first person — but her concern is the artist’s model, not the artist.
Olson’s mother was descended from the Hathorn family, whose ancestor presided over the Salem witch trials, and her father was a Swedish sailor who happened upon the hamlet of Cushing, Maine, when his ship became lodged in ice in 1890. The farmhouse where she grew up, with no indoor plumbing or central heating, is typical of the area — it looms over the landscape, a drafty reminder of more prominent days.
By the time Wyeth shows up in 1939, Christina and her brother, Al, are living alone on the property, where survival is a daily struggle. Christina, whose hands are badly misshapen and whose legs cannot support her, drags herself around the house and fields, refusing to use a wheelchair.
Doctors are stymied by her condition, which experts now believe was the hereditary Charcot-Marie-Tooth syndrome. By his 50s her father was in a wheelchair, believing his trouble was arthritis.
Baker Kline clearly has done her research on the Olson family, but it is her empathy and imagination that make this book sing. She captures a singular voice of a stubborn, heartbroken woman who gradually sheds dream after dream and accepts her fate — to live out her life in this unforgiving Maine landscape. Christina is a promising student enchanted by the poems of Emily Dickinson, but her father foils her chance to become a teacher. Her romance with a rich summer visitor, Walton, is doomed to end badly.
Similarly, her brother Al is forced to put away his dory and love of the sea when his father needs him on the farm.
What could read as depressing tragedy, however, is saved by Christina’s valiant voice and her rich friendship with Wyeth. The budding artist sets up a studio in the old farmhouse, using its fresh eggs for his tempera paint. Unlike her pitying neighbors, Wyeth treats Christina with a respect that helps him gain her trust.
“Christina’s World,” his master work, keeps him in Maine well past Labor Day in 1948. She poses for him, but the painting that results is infused with all the years of their friendship. “You showed what no one else could see,” she says to Wyeth.
Like the woman in the Wyeth painting, the Christina Olson of this novel is unbowed, confounding, and ultimately inspiring.
— Betty J. Cotter teaches at the University of Rhode Island and Three Rivers Community College in Norwich, Conn. She is the author of “The Winters” and “Roberta’s Woods.”