“A Piece of the World”
Author: Christina Baker Kline
Publisher: HarperCollins, 2017
Price: $27.99 (Hardcover)
In 2014, Christina Baker Kline, who had four previously published and well-received novels, became a household name with “Orphan Train.” This novel was based on the lives of a few of the thousands of homeless, orphaned, and/or unwanted children, infants to teenagers, gathered up from the streets of New York City, mainly the Lower East Side, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
There was at the time no Children’s Aid Society, or other charitable institution to care for them. And, in fact, in a simplistically puritan world, poverty itself suggested that the deity was definitely not shining on these children. Success equaled virtue; poverty suggested vice.
These children were put on trains and sent to rural America; in Kline’s story, set in 1929, the children are sent to Minnesota. At different stations along the way, couples who wanted a child—a childless couple might want an infant to raise or a farmer might choose a teenage boy to help in the fields—would come to the station and choose one.
Kline tells the life of ten-year-old Niamh (Neev) Power, an Irish immigrant girl who, like many, is taken into a series of foster homes, some tolerable and some horrendous.
For most readers the orphan trains were a revelation, a piece of history few knew. Kline’s smoothly told saga has so far sold four million copies. (I cannot resist telling you that as a teenager, Kline babysat Stephen King’s children in their small town in Maine.)
Her new novel is set in Kline’s native Maine. “A Piece of the World” is a fictionalization of the life of Christina Olson, the lone figure in a field of hay, in Andrew Wyeth’s iconic painting, “Christina’s World.”
There was a real Christina, a woman already 46 in 1940, when Wyeth was 22. Christina was, in ways that are too mysterious to explain, Wyeth’s muse, the inspiration for one of America’s most famous and haunting works of art. Although this is a work of fiction, Kline sticks as close as possible to the life of the real Christina.
As Kline tells us, the actual Christina had had a long and, paradoxically, complicated life before ever meeting Wyeth. Paradoxical because it would seem to be a small life. She was born and always lived in the same farmhouse, a building without electricity, indoor plumbing or central heat.
(One might call this a quiet novel, like Brad Watson’s superb novel “Miss Jane,” in which not much “happens,” but in a life lived with an alert mind, everything happens. There are just no car chases or shootings.)
From the age of three, Christina was afflicted by a disease of incurable muscular degeneration. As a girl she walked awkwardly and fell often, then later could not walk at all. A strong, stubborn person, Christina refused cane, walker or wheelchair and, near the end, literally dragged herself along the ground, on her elbows. She was, as she herself said, trapped in her own body.
She is on the ground in Wyeth’s painting. She describes it this way: “he portrayed me …
dragging myself across the field, fingers clutching dirt, my legs twisted behind.”
Life for her was an endless round of farm chores, exhausting, but satisfying in their way: baking bread, washing clothes. Christina did not go “back to the land,” but stayed rooted in the very spot she was born.
She muses, “No one will ever know, when we’re gone to dust, the life we’ve shared here, our desires and our doubts, our intimacy and our solitude.”
Christina had one chance at love, a boy named Walton, a student at Harvard, who courted her for four summers, just before the First World War, but finally broke her heart. She was 25 years old. She had hoped not just for marriage and family but perhaps “escape,” as well.
Thoroughly human, not a saint, Christina was for a while bitter and angry, envious of the happiness of others, but found some solace in the beauty of her natural surroundings and in her reading. Always a bright girl, she loved the novels of Wharton, Cather, James, even Tolstoy, but was in a deep harmony, not surprisingly, with the poems of Emily Dickinson.
Dickinson famously wrote, “This is my letter to the world, that never wrote to me.” That “letter” was received, is still being received, by smart, sensitive, lonely women like Christina Olson.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.