Christina Baker Kline

A Piece Of The World

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A Piece Of The World Summary

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One of American painter Andrew Wyeth’s most iconic paintings is “Christina’s World,” an enigmatic image of a woman lying in the grass with her arm reaching towards a farmhouse in the distance. Painted in 1948, Wyeth used the real Christina Olson as his muse for this work – and in 2017, author Christina Baker Cline wrote a novel exploring the woman behind the artwork. In A Piece of the World, Cline writes a fictionalized autobiography of Christina, in which this often bitter and frustrated character explains why the farm where she grew up and lived all her life has functioned as both a safe place and a prison.

The novel is told in non-chronological order, as a middle-aged Christina looks back over the life she has led. However, this summary will explain the narrated events in linear order.

Christina is born in the 1890s in Cushing, a town in Maine, to a Swedish immigrant father and a mother who was descended from a family distantly related to Nathaniel Hawthorne. The family, which also includes Christina’s three brothers, lives on a farm that has been in her mother’s family for several generations. As a little girl, Christina comes down with a strange disease that affects her legs, making walking difficult, and stiffens her arms and hands. Life on the farm is tough, with endlessly repetitive chores, which are made all the more challenging by the fact that there is no electricity.

Christina is a bright, curious child who enjoys school despite becoming somewhat socially ostracized because of her disability. She reads widely and constantly, particularly finding herself drawn to the poetry of Emily Dickinson – another isolated woman. When she finishes school, Ms. Crowley, Christina’s sympathetic teacher, offers her the opportunity to train to become a teacher and eventually replace Ms. Crowley at the school. This seems like a perfect opportunity for Christina to pursue, but her parents categorically refuse to allow her to leave the farm. After all, they need her to keep the place running and cannot afford a hired replacement. Christina’s first small chance for a better life is crushed.

When she is twenty years old, Christina meets Walton Hall, a young man from Boston who is summering in Cushing at the home of his cousin. Walton and Christina immediately become romantically involved – both are well read and find each other’s company delightful. For a while, he continues to come to Cushing every summer and the relationship seems quite happy. Four years later, Walton tells Christina that he would like to marry her – and again, here is an opportunity for her to escape the trap of farm life and its endless drudgery and hard labor. Unfortunately, Walton’s family is much higher-class than the Olsons. Although he promises that he will try his best to convince his parents, after the fourth summer, he stops writing to Christina altogether. Soon, she hears that he is engaged to someone else from a socially comparable family. Devastated, Christina renounces love.

In the meantime, Christina’s disease is steadily progressing, further limiting her mobility. When she gets up the energy to visit Boston to consult a few doctors, they tell her that there is nothing to be done.

Back at the farm, Christina’s father falls mysteriously ill. Desperate, he uses the family’s savings to buy a supposed cure – but this turns out to be a complete scam. Meanwhile, Cushing is rife with rumors about the way Walton treated Christina. Fed up, Christina resolves to never speak to her one supposed-friend, Gertrude, who is behind the gossip.

In the 1920s only Christina and her older brother, Al, are left to take care of the farmhouse and their elderly, ailing parents – the younger two brothers have moved away and started families of their own. Al has a chance to leave the farm behind, as he begins a relationship with a woman who would like to marry him. But soon, feeling guilty that the disabled Christina, who is often almost unable to walk, would be the only one taking care of her mother and father and the farm as well, Al leaves his girlfriend and returns to the farm.

In 1939, Christina’s seventeen-year-old neighbor, Betsy, introduces Christina to Andrew Wyeth, her twenty-two-year-old friend and a painter. Andrew, inspired by the house and farm, asks to be able to paint there. A year later, Andrew and Betsy are engaged to be married, and he regularly comes to the farm to paint landscapes. Andrew finds Christina and her life inspirational and their rapport develops into a friendship.

A few years later, Andrew’s father is killed in a car accident. Dedicating himself to painting full-time, Andrew starts using Christina as a muse, eventually asking her to sit for a portrait. When it is finished, Christina thinks that he has made her too serious.

The years pass, and Christina eventually tells Andrew about her life and its disappointments. By this point, her legs are so weak and unreliable that she tries to walk as little as possible, sometimes resorting to crawling or dragging her body on the ground. In 1948, Andrew shows her his latest painting – “Christina’s World” – in which a young version of her is seen from behind, reaching for a farmhouse from a field. The novel ends with Christina saying that he has perfectly captured the beauty her life has in it.