Breathing new life into the tale of disabled girl and a painter in rural Maine
Novelist Christina Baker Kline has loved the Andrew Wyeth painting “Christina’s World” for as long as she can remember. But it wasn’t until after she’d finished her previous novel, “Orphan Train,” that Kline decided to base a book on it. “I’d become kind of obsessed with hardscrabble rural life in the first half of the 20th century,” Kline said. While discussing book ideas over lunch, Kline’s friend and fellow writer Marina Budhos suddenly mentioned “Christina’s World.”
“She said, ‘Do you know that painting? For some reason, it reminds me of you,’ ” Kline said. “And I just said, ‘That’s my next book!’ It was so exactly right.”
Kline set out to revisit the image that she’d identified with as a child, spending hours at the Museum of Modern Art, where it now hangs. And she researched the relationship between Wyeth and his subject, Christina Olson, who was his neighbor in Cushing, Maine, in the 1940s. In her novel, “A Piece of the World,” Kline takes to fiction to tell their fascinating true story.
Olson, who was descended from one of the judges at the Salem Witch Trials, suffered from a degenerative neurological disorder that left her unable to stand or walk. “Nobody knew what it was,” Kline said. “It got progressively worse. Eventually she ended up crawling. She refused to use a wheelchair.” Despite her disability, Olson did all the family’s cooking and cleaning in a house that featured, Kline added, “no heat, no running water, no electricity.”
Wyeth and Olson shared a deep friendship, talking for hours. “He saw her in a way that nobody else did,” Kline said. The painting, dismissed by many as mere illustration, now stands as the masterwork of an artist being rediscovered. “Wyeth’s place in American art is shifting pretty radically,” Kline said. “He’s getting the respect that I believe he deserves.”
Kline will read 6 p.m. Wednesday in the Boston Public Library’s Rabb Hall, 700 Boylston St., Boston.