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“A Piece of the World” by Christina Baker Kline is a novel about Anna “Christina” Olson, who posed for Andrew Wyeth’s famous 1948 painting “Christina’s World.”
Mr. Wyeth met her when he was 22 and she, 46. He had been a frail child so he immediately bonded with this woman who had an undiagnosed degenerative muscular disorder, and preferred dragging herself without the use of mobility aids. For more than 30 years, he went each summer to Cushing, Maine, and painted in the upstairs rooms of the
Olson’s rambling farmhouse, which Wyeth used as his studio.
“The challenge to me was to do justice to her extraordinary conquest of a life most people would consider hopeless,” Mr. Wyeth wrote. “If in some, small way I have been able to paint to make the viewer sense that her world may be limited physically but by no means spiritually, then I have achieved what I set out to do.”
Christina’s story, as Mr. Wyeth said, is in many ways the story of New England itself. She is smart, self-reliant, and proud. She was the oldest child and only daughter of a mother descended from the notorious judge of the Salem Witch Trials and a father, a Swedish sailor who found shelter and work at the Hawthorn Inn when his ship became icebound. Mr. Olson fell in love with the captain’s daughter, Katie. They married and Christina was born a year later.
As Christina grew older, her younger brother, Alvaro, became her closest friend. As their mother weakened from kidney disease and their father stiffened from arthritis, the brother and sister ran the farm with little help from their two younger brothers.
The work was hard, yet Christina found things along the way that delighted her. She loved sewing and baking and holding her cats on her lap. Christina shed dream after dream and accepted her fate – to live out her life in the unforgiving Maine landscape. The remote farm became her whole world, and she snatched at happiness whenever and wherever she could.
Christina and Alvaro posed for many of Andrew Wyeth’s paintings. Their relationship was forged on their deep understanding of how it is to be an outsider looking outward.
Ms. Kline writes, “Christina embodies many of the traits we have come to think of as distinctly American; rugged individualism and quiet strength, defiance in the face of obstacles and unremitting perseverance.” She has magnificently brought readers a piece of Christina’s, Al’s, and Andrew’s world.