A teacher once pointed out that the young woman in Andrew Wyeth’s painting, Christina’s World, was a real person who couldn’t walk and whose entire world was the house in the distance and the field surrounding it. Christina Baker Kline’s A Piece of the World expands my appreciation of this famous painting by letting Christina Olson tell her own story in a first-person, present-tense narrative that immersed me deeply into her life.
Christina is stricken as a child by an unknown illness that leaves her unable to walk without stumbling awkwardly. She recovers but becomes more and more disabled as time goes by. As an adult, she rarely leaves her chair on the ground floor of her three-story house. She defiantly refuses a wheel chair, preferring to scrape her wooden chair around the kitchen to prepare meals for her parents and brothers. She crawls on her elbows when she wishes to go elsewhere, even to the home a friend a mile away.
“I wonder, not for the first time, if shame and pride are merely two sides of the same coin.”
“To me using a wheelchair would mean I’ve given up, resigned myself to a small existence inside the house… I see it as a cage…I am willing to risk injury and humiliation to move about as I choose…”
She cuts herself off from many well-meaning neighbors in the nearby town of Cushing, Maine.
“These neighbors leach pity the way a canteen of cold water sweats in the heat. The slightest inquiry is freighted with words unsaid. Worried about you…feel sorry for you…so glad I’m not you.”
When a young Andrew Wyeth appears at her door, she reluctantly lets him take over a room upstairs as a summer studio. He returns every summer to paint the fields, the farm, the house, the rooms, her brother, and her. He alone seems to see her beyond her infirmity and her crankiness.
Wyeth tells Christina…
“…I think you’re used to being observed but not really…seen. People are always concerned about you, worried about you, watching to see how you’re getting on. Well-meaning, of course, but–intrusive. And I think you’ve figured out how to deflect their concern, or pity, or whatever it is, by carrying yourself in this ‘–he raises his arm as if holding an orb–‘ dignified, aloof way….Like the Queen of Sweden…Ruling over all of Cushing from your chair in the kitchen.”
Kline researched the very real people and places depicted to create a sensitive, insightful, and thought-provoking exploration of a familiar image. Recommend.