Title: A Piece of the World
Born into an old seafaring family on a remote farm on the coast of Maine, Christina Olson grows up surrounded by her grandmother’s maritime relics and stories of sailing to distant shores with her sea captain husband. These exotic tales have little to do with Christina’s own reality though, living in a large bleak house buffeted by the relentless ocean breeze, trying to make a living from the land. Having been born with an undiagnosed neurological disorder that makes walking increasingly difficult, Christina’s world is shrinking daily, and she rarely gets to venture far from home. So how did this woman become the subject of one of the best known American paintings of the 20th century, Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World”?
I remember my initial feelings when first coming across a print of Andrew Wyeth’s painting “Christina’s World”, the image of a girl in a pale pink dress lying in a meadow, looking up the hill towards the stark and bleak facade of a weatherboard farmhouse. To me, the picture depicted both a longing and a sense of desperation and loneliness I could not quite explain, and I was curious to find out more about this mysterious woman who can evoke such emotion in the viewer.
Told in the first person from Christina’s perspective, the story skips back and forth in time between Christina’s life as an older and somewhat bitter woman confined to her family homestead and her childhood, from the first time she suffers the fist debilitating flare up of the neurological disorder that will ultimately cost her her mobility. With three younger brothers and an ailing mother, all the household chores fall to Christina, especially after the death of her formidable grandmother, the only person in the family who recognises Christina’s tenacious spirit, despite her disability. Unfortunately, the era she has been born into is very much male-dominated, and after her father forbids her to take the opportunity to stay on at school to train as a teacher, Christina’s only hope for a different life is through marriage. But when her first and only romance with a young Harvard scholar fails, Christina is condemned to live out her days as a spinster in the old house, further burdened by her daily struggles with pain and illness. Until Andrew Wyeth appears on her doorstep, and offers her not only friendship but also true understanding, and a glimpse into a different world.
In a postscript to her novel, the author Christina Baker Cline states that she hopes she has done Christina Olson’s story justice – and she has certainly achieved that. Perhaps it was her extensive research coupled with her own knowledge of the simple life, close to nature and without the amenities we take for granted, which gave her such a depth of understanding for Christina. She manages to recreate life on a wind-beaten farm perfectly, as well as the restrictions Christina faces on a daily basis, not only due to her disability but also her gender.
A Piece of the World sheds light on an interesting piece of American history I knew nothing about. I admired Christina’s tenacity in the face of adversity and felt an intense sadness as slowly all her hopes and dreams are eroded by not only her mind-numbing daily routine, but also the people around her, who do not take the time to see the fiercely intelligent, independent spirit of the woman trapped inside her inform body. I could not help wondering how much better her life could have been had she been born a century later, a time when women have more opportunity to make their own way in the world, and education is no longer a privilege of the wealthy in our society. Maybe I sensed this on seeing the menacing presence of the dark house in the distance in the painting, which ultimately became Christina and her brother Al’s prison, preventing them from finding love.
He did get one thing right: Sometimes a sanctuary, sometimes a prison, that house on the hill has always been my home. I’ve spent my life yearning toward it, wanting to escape it, paralyzed by its hold on me.
For me, this was a melancholy and somewhat bleak read. Even though I enjoyed the author’s writing, and appreciated the historical detail and obvious mountain of research backing the story, I found it difficult to fully engage with Christina during some parts of the story. I guess it is related to the inevitable miserable fate of Christina becoming a lonely spinster trapped in a joyless routine, with little hope of escape. Even Andrew Wyeth’s friendship could not compensate for the loss of her dreams and ambitions, and a sad taste lingers on long after turning the last page.
I wonder, not for the first time, if shame and pride are merely two sides of the same coin.
The places we go in our minds to find comfort have little to do with where our bodies go.
Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with a free electronic copy of this novel and giving me the opportunity to provide an honest review.