Christina Baker Kline opens the doors and invites us into the farmhouse in Andrew Wyeth’s iconic painting, Christina’s World. This fictional work offers readers a chance to understand the world of the Maine residents he painted. It’s not about Wyeth very much, although Kline does imagine the relationship he had with Christina Olson and her family.
Kline draws on extensive research into Wyeth, the times he depicts, and the Olson and Hathorne families. But her book isn’t overwhelmed with facts. Instead, it’s heavy with feelings and relationships. Her focus is on the titular Christina, whose perspective tells the story. And Christina has a difficult life.
She has a disability of unknown origin, that starts after a childhood episode of terrible fever. Not only does it make her life more physically difficult, she also suffers the emotional toll of being different from her classmates, brothers, and friends. They both include her and make her feel like she’s “other.” And of course, the disability creates immense chronic pain for Christina.
Chronic pain in the early 20th century was entirely different than it is today. In Christina’s case, her family still expects her to do the housework and care for her aging parents. Later in life she sometimes gets around by pulling herself along the floor with her elbows.
She just goes on with life, but it changes her. You can see it in some of Wyeth’s later paintings of her face. And Kline effectively shows the personality change in her story. By the time she meets Wyeth, Christina is bitter and unhappy. She constantly looks back to what could have been. And yet, Wyeth and his wife connect with Christina. They have a relationship with her that’s fundamentally positive, in a world of intense negatives. It’s an interesting juxtaposition and creates depth in the novel.
This is a book for everyone who looks at a famous painting and wonders about the people inside it. It’s grounded in facts, but Kline also takes us into Christina’s wounded psyche. It’s not an especially happy or uplifting book. Like her figure in the painting, Christina’s world is one where she can’t quite reach the places she hopes to be.
Kline writes an unflinching portrayal of rural America in an earlier, rougher time. The Olsons had no running water or electricity, even into the 1930s and 40s. They tried to keep up with a 16-room, former inn. Not an easy task for a woman with a disability and her younger brother.
I found the story affecting, if somewhat depressing. Kline’s writing is direct, perhaps because of the character she inhabits. The moments of beauty are subtle, and the sadness intense.
As the daughter of a Wyeth aficionado, this was a chance to understand my father’s taste in art more deeply. It makes me want to visit Maine and see that part of Wyeth’s and Christina’s world for myself.
I read this one for my face-to-face book group. It’s going to be interesting to discuss, particularly because a few of us also live with chronic pain and illness.