This is a girl who has lived through broken dreams and promises. Still lives. Will always live on that hillside, at the center of a world that unfolds all the way to the edges of the canvas.
Christina Baker Kline, A Piece of the World
Born just before the dawn of the twentieth century, middle-aged Christina Olson has spent her life on a remote and primitive farm on the coast of Maine. Time stands still for Christina, who suffers from a mysterious degenerative disease, and her bachelor brother, Al. They live as their ancestors did, hauling water from a nearby spring, making soap, chopping firewood, growing vegetables, and tending animals.
Christina’s father forces her to leave school after eighth grade, despite her quick and curious mind. “The wider world is no place for her,” he declares. When Christina takes refuge in a book of poems by Emily Dickinson, her mother “dumps a basket of air-dried sheets” in her lap, admonishing that there’s “no time for lollygagging.” Throughout the novel, the reclusive poet’s puzzling lines resonate with the lonely Christina.
One summer afternoon, a young painter named Andrew Wyeth asks her for a glass of water. Summer after summer he returns, setting up his studio in an empty room in the farmhouse. “Andy” is fascinated with Christina and Al’s circumscribed life, asking questions not only about their habits and routines, but about the reasons they live as they do: “. . . Over time his inquiries became more personal. Why do Al and I live here alone, with all these empty rooms? What was it like when it was full of people, before most of the fields went to flower? . . . Did you or Al ever want to live somewhere, anywhere, else?”
Over the years, the artist and his subject develop a close and trusting relationship. Christina, a bitter woman whose life has brought her many disappointments, is difficult for most people to like. She rejects the kind, if awkward, attempts of neighbors to befriend and help her. But she and Andy are kindred spirits, in a way:
Later I reflect on the things we have in common and the things we don’t. Our stubbornness and our infirmities. Our circumscribed childhoods. His father kept him out of school; we’re alike that way. But N.C. trained him to be a painter and Papa trained me to take care of the house, and there’s a world of difference in that.
When Christina first meets Andrew Wyeth, he’s introduced as N.C. Wyeth’s son: “‘You know N.C. Wyeth. The famous illustrator? Treasure Island?'” Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic adventure novel stands in contrast to the story of Christina’s life, in which a trip to Boston is an exciting experience. Al, who longed to make a living on the sea and whose forebears traveled the world on sailing ships, read Treasure Island a dozen times — “Might be the only book I ever actually finished, now that I think about it,” he says.
“Treasure” is a motif that recurs throughout A Piece of the World. As children, Christina and Al are fascinated with the legend of nearby Mystery Tunnel, where pirates hid their treasure. Christina’s summertime boyfriend, Walton, refers to her as a treasure. Christina’s nephew, John, visits “Treasure Island” in the Pacific on his way home from naval duty in World War II. The real treasure in the novel is Wyeth’s painting, “Christina’s World”, which shows “what no one else can see”. Art — Andrew Wyeth’s paintings, Robert Louis Stevenson’s and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novels, Emily Dickinson’s poetry — is valuable beyond measure. It brings us the world, and it endures.
Christina Baker Kline’s lovely novel is not a page-turner, but I didn’t want to put it down. The narrative drive comes not from plot but from the portrait Kline paints of Christina Olson and her friendship with Andrew Wyeth. Kline’s decision to tell the story entirely from Christina’s point of view gives the novel a sense of intimacy and helps the reader connect with a character who may inspire sympathy but not affection. Kline says she that Wyeth “managed to get at the core of Christina’s self”. The novel imagines the details and background that make up that essence, giving a face to a woman whose face we’ve never seen.