When I was eight, my grandmother hung a painting above her white painted-brick fireplace, one I’d spend countless hours examining. A golden field rose up to meet a gray-blue horizon. An old house, full of shadows, presided atop the hill beside a large barn and several out-building.
In the forefront, lay a woman with dark hair swept back in a loose bun. A warm breeze blew tendrils off her face as she looked up to the old house. She lay with her feet behind her, sort of pushed up on her hands in a casual downward-facing dog. She wore a light pink dress that skimmed her hips.
As a girl, I found her lovely. I, too, wanted to lie in a sun-drenched field and wear my hair long (my mother kept it cropped close, an unfortunate choice for my own black curls). Even as a child, I envied her elegant femininity. I spent sections of time wondering who she was and why she was alone. I wanted to be her. One day, I told my sweet grandmother as much, and her eyebrow-raised response surprised me.
“Why on earth would you want that, Julie?” she exclaimed. “That woman is crippled.”
I realized I’d been looking at the painting all wrong. “You mean she can’t walk?”
“No, she can’t. Her name was Christina, and her life must have been miserable.”
I wondered why Grandma would want such a sad symbol hanging in her living room. I know now that the painting is called Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth, and that the common bond between Christina and my grandmother is that both their worlds were populated with ghosts. My grandmother walked just fine, but she was secretly crippled in other ways.
At once my perspective of the painting shifted. I noticed telling details I’d previously overlooked. Her too-thin arms, her protruding elbow joint. I realized her legs were not bent in casual repose, but twisted behind her. Gray threads flecked her ebony hair.
Empathy replaced envy as I re-imagined myself in her world. The summer breeze I’d envisioned became a furnace blast. The house receded, taunting; I would have to drag myself to its doorstep. I wanted to know more. How did Christina get there? Did she live alone? If not, what kind of horrible people would just leave her lying there? Was that even her house? Even more mystifying, despite this new perspective, I still found Christina herself just as beautiful.
Decades later, I found a print of the painting in a local craft supply. I snatched it up, framed it, and hung it in my den. I made a mental note to one day research the painting, Christina and her world.
Well, someone beat me to it. Author Christina Baker Kline spent two years researching the Christina’s World, its painter, Christina and her ancestry which, by the way, is filled with seafaring explorers and revolves around the Salem Witch Trials – there’s even legend of a family curse. With this body of research, Baker Kline crafted a piece of the world.
As described on the cover by Erik Larson, the book is, “A brilliantly imagined fictional memoir of the woman in the famed Wyeth painting Christina’s World.”
Indeed, Baker Kline paints a rich and complex inner world for Christina, both as a child whose body betrays her, as a young woman who dreams of love, and of the woman she ultimately becomes. This poetic work conjures a world in Wyeth colors; pale pink, dark gray, soft yellow, and steel blue all saturate a landscape of characters, all of whom orbit Christina.
At four, Christina’s body failed her, but her pragmatism refused to allow her to despair, and she willed herself a “normal” life. She knew people saw her as different, pitied her, but this seems to only fuel her strength. Still, she struggled. In love, naiveté blinded her. She was prideful and at times selfish. But really, aren’t we all? As her friends and “frenemies” chided her for her stubbornness, I wondered whether we tend to be less forgiving of such traits in those less fortunate. What right do you have to be prideful when you’re so dependent?
Christina came of age in a time of frenetic change, when American’s were optimistic and upwardly mobile. Christina’s parents, however, despite their complex and adventurous heritage, ultimately stagnated. Eventually they even failed at care-taking, they taught a bright and promising Christina how to run a farm and household, then seemed content to sit back and let young Christina run it.
A piece of the world is a historical memoir, well-researched historical fiction, but when done well the genre opens a portal to another time. Baker Kline does exactly this as through Christina’s eyes she enmeshes us in an era only our oldest remember. Christina’s world, at times harsh, at others otherworldly, opens our hearts to her struggle to find significance in a time that valued, in women, marriage, charm, summer cottages and stained lips.
What of the rumored family curse? The tragic pattern of Christina’s ancestry certainly points to the possibility, but you’ll have to decide for yourself.
All Christina wanted was to be noticed, to be loved and remembered. At a time when she considered all hope for these things lost, her friend Andrew Wyeth immortalized her life in tempera. Through a piece of the world: a novel, Baker Kline bestows upon Christina yet another immeasurable, wondrous and posthumous gift.
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