A Piece of the World
Christina Baker Kline’s A Piece of the World is a fictionalized look into the life of Christina Olsen, the tough-minded farm woman who became a model, friend and occasional muse for surrealist painter Andrew Wyeth.
Compared to Wyeth’s somewhat more exalted status as the son of illustrator N.C. Wyeth, Chistina’s spinsterly life is a long litany of tough events, from a lifelong battle with what is believed to either have been Charcot–Marie–Tooth disease or Polio, brought on by a childhood fever, to her combative yet loving relationship with her parents. Christina is naturally stubborn and tough in spite of her ailment, or so it seems, but there is also a joyous quality to her life. She discovers the power of poetry, watches her bother fall in love with shipbuilding, grows to love Emily Dickenson, flirts with lesbianism and develops a poetic long-distance relationship with a teacher named Walton that ultimately leads to heartbreak. All the while, her painting-self both validates and haunts her. Who is the real Christina? What can be said of her life as it nears a close?
Baker Kline’s novel is an interesting mix of agonizing personal study and celebrity – or anti-celebrity – biography. The text is fascinated by what is real; the phony is disdained, lies made verboten. Christina’s biggest sin is her failure to accept that her stubbornness has entombed her within the family farm and kept her from seeking help, but it’s a lesson she learns watching her crippled father fall for liar after liar. We follow Christina through the changing seasons, as her physical disability grows worse and her hope of escaping from her small Maine hometown shrinks. Her inborn sense of pride makes her a victim again and again, and it’s frustrating and even depressing to watch her bang her head repeatedly against her own stubbornness. She is sometimes a hard character to love, and it’s to Baker Kline’s credit that she maintains a sense of bruised soulful stubbornness about the character.
Indeed, it’s the beauty of the writing that keeps the reader from descending into total despair and a sensation of being subjected to an endless parade of misery. She does not beautify the lives of Wyeth and Olson; they are both depicted as three dimensional human beings who feel love and frustration and agony. Wyeth’s complicated feelings about his famous father and pushy wife are not cleaned up, and are presented to us warts and all. The same is true of Christina’s relationships with all those who are close to her.
Ultimately though, this is a hard go of a novel, filled with dark spots written about beautifully. Sometimes the cavalcade of misery was a bit much to take, and I admit I had to step away from the book several times before continuing with it. Its moments of sunspotted happiness are quite few and far between, and even those are shaded with conflict and doubt. Yet Christina’s ultimate epiphany is one of enlightenment and joy, of being recognized and being seen as alive, valued and worthwhile. Made immortal by art, all of her pain and struggles have been transmuted by validation and recognition. So it is with the novel.