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'A Piece of the World' looks deep within the story of an iconic painting

Christina Baker Kline, an artist herself, draws on the real history behind Andrew Wyeth's famed painting 'Christina's World' to conjure up her own haunting portrait.

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A Piece of the World
By Christina Baker Kline
William Morrow
320 pp.

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Christina Olson lives in a house full of curiosities. There are the treasures her seafaring grandparents brought back from their travels to far-flung islands. The mysterious relics from her father’s growing-up years in Sweden. The remnants of life from earlier eras, like the roaring, wood-fed stove: Even in post-World War I America, the Olsons’ remote homestead in Cushing, Maine is still without electricity or indoor plumbing.

Perhaps the most intriguing curiosity of all is Christina herself, the main character of Christina Baker Kline’s new novel, A Piece of the World. After a bout of illness at a young age, protagonist Christina finds her body increasingly crippled by pain and deformity that doctors fail to understand. She falls often and must move by dragging her recalcitrant limbs along. What most in the story fail to see is that inside her hardening shell of a body lies a mind that yearns for freedom.

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“A Piece of the World” jumps back and forth in time, weaving together Christina’s child and young adulthoods with the defining event of her later decades: her role as muse to the artist Andrew Wyeth. It’s an effective blending of timelines and events: One narrative chronicles the formation of Christina’s shell even as the Wyeth storyline slowly cracks it open.

Christina could be a tragic character, but Kline paints her otherwise – as does Wyeth. In both renderings, she is distinctly American: plucky, determined, indefatigable. She is also a dreamer. In her younger years, she dreams of further schooling (a dream her parents deny her), love (also denied), and life beyond the crumbling family homestead (a dream she ultimately denies herself). As an adult, she mainly dreams of being seen – not as a brittle, deformed shell of a person, but for her resilience, her intellect, and her humanity.

If you’re not familiar with Andrew Wyeth’s iconic painting, “Christina’s World,” you don’t need to be to feel pulled into the textured canvas of this story. Kline herself is an artist, drawing on the real history of Christina Olson and Andrew Wyeth to conjure up her own haunting portrait. As in her bestselling novel, “Orphan Train,” Kline’s deep research into characters, place, and time period provides the outlines of a compelling story, which she then expertly brings into three dimensions.

Reading “A Piece of the World” isn’t merely about taking in a series of descriptions of coastal Maine; it’s being there. It’s the beauty of snow falling softly, “like flour through a sifter, accumulating in drifts.” It’s also the stark harshness of the seasons: “a colorless sky, gray-boned trees, old sooty snow. Winter, I think, must be tired of itself.” Kline has an artist’s eye and plays with contrasts: portraying beauty and ugliness side by side, both in her setting and in her characters.

When Wyeth arrives in 1939, with Christina often housebound and well into middle age, he, too, is drawn to the contrasts of this compelling woman and her surroundings. Through his eyes, Christina begins to see the decaying home that has become her prison in a new light: a crumbling shell that may obscure, but can’t completely hide, the rich world that lies within.

Though Christina is quick to respond to the beauty that Wyeth finds in the house’s curiosities, she is slower to kindle to what he sees within her. For all the years she has spent bridling at others’ well-meaning (and sometimes sanctimonious) sympathy, and wishing they could see past her gnarled form to who she really is, even Christina has difficulty looking past surface appearances to appreciate the woman Wyeth is able to capture on canvas.

But capture her he does, in a striking painting that portrays her as pink and exposed – free from her shell, but also straining back toward it. Newly born into the world, but also carved and molded by all the history that came before her. Yearning for the safety, or perhaps the familiar boundaries, of the past, even as a much greater yearning places her in the center of a wide expanse of land – an endless sea of potential.

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At least, that’s what I saw as I looked at the reproduction of “Christina’s World” that’s included at the end of the novel. Is it what Wyeth intended for me to see? Or Kline? What I do know is that both artists have a gift for cracking open the calcified exterior of what might superficially be called a curiosity and exposing the color and poetry of whatever lies within.