Written by Emilie Kefalas
Bestselling author Christina Baker Kline introduced and discussed her newest book, “A Piece of the World: A Novel,” last weekend at the Trustees Theater in her closing address to the 10th annual Savannah Book Festival. The book, which details the life of Christina Olson, the subject of Andrew Wyeth’s famous painting, “Christina’s World,” released nationwide last week.
Kline’s acclaimed novel, “Orphan Train,” published in 2014, spent more than two years on the New York Times bestseller list and has been sold internationally in 35 countries with 2 million copies in print. She gave the festival exclusive access to “A Piece of the World” by reading an excerpt from one of its chapters, describing her latest story as one of friendship and a journey of love.
“The photographer Sidney Sherman imagined what it would look like if Christina turned her head,” Kline said, displaying a few slides for reference. “And that’s sort of the impulse of my novel.”
After Kline finished writing “Orphan Train,” she sought another story that would occupy and engross her as completely. Having learned so much about twentieth century America as part of her research for “Orphan Train,” she thought it would benefit her to linger in that time period.
“I had become particularly interested in rural life,” Kline said. “How people get by, and what emotional tools they needed to survive hard times. As with ‘Orphan Train,’ I liked the idea of taking a real historical moment of some significance, and lending fiction and nonfiction, filling in the details, illuminating a story that had been unnoticed or obscured.”
Several months after the release of “Orphan Train,” one of Kline’s writing friends remarked that she recently viewed the painting and thought of Kline.
“For the past two years, I’ve immersed myself in Christina’s world,” Kline said. “I sat in front of this actual painting at the Museum of Modern Art, listening to the enthused, perturbed, dismissive, passionate comments from passersby all over the globe. My favorite one was from a Danish woman, who said, ‘It’s just so creepy.'”
As with her work on “Orphan Train,” Kline felt she had a responsibility to tell Olson’s story as factually accurate as she could while also making it believable to her readers and those familiar with Wyeth’s painting.
Kline studied the works of the three famous Wyeth’s, N.C. Wyeth, Andrew Wyeth and Jamie Wyeth, to get a sense of their rich and complex family history. She also became intimately familiar with the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine, which has an entire building devoted to Wyeth art and linked to the Olson House, the one featured in the painting and where Andrew Wyeth spent a great deal of time, in Cushing, Maine.
When she was younger, Kline said she had the long, dirty blonde hair like Olsen’s in the painting, which she came to view as a Roshak test, a magic trick or a slight of hand.
“At first glance, the slim woman in the grass appears to be relaxed, but a second glance reveals [something] odd,” Kline said. “Her arms are strangely thin, maybe she’s older than she appears. She seems poised, alert, yearning for the house, yet hesitant. Is she afraid? Her face is turned from the viewer but she appears to be gazing in a darkened room on the second floor. What does she see in its shadows?”
Having been translated and adapted into multiple mediums since its completion in 1948, “Christina’s World” is, as Kline observed, more of a psychological landscape than a still life portrait.
“This painting celebrates rugged individualism, I believe, and quiet strength, defiance in the face of obstacles and perseverance,” Kline said. “The down to earth naturalism of Wyeth’s paintings is deceptive. In his work, all is not as it seems. His paintings always have an undercurrent of wonder and mystery. He was fascinated with the darker aspects of human experiences.”