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Woman At The Center Of Iconic 1940s Painting Inspires A Novel10:51

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"A Piece of the World," by Christina Baker Kline. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)closemore
"A Piece of the World," by Christina Baker Kline. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

The iconic Andrew Wyeth painting "Christina’s World" depicts a woman in a pink house dress stretched out in a field, turned toward a house in the distance. The painting was inspired by Christina Olson, who lived near Wyeth's summer home in Maine.

Now that painting has inspired "A Piece of the World," a novel that tells Olson's story. Author Christina Baker Kline (@bakerkline) joins Here & Now's Robin Young to talk about the book and the real-life Olson. Also, we revisit one past interview with Andrew Wyeth and his son Jamie.

Book Excerpt: 'A Piece Of The World'

By Christina Baker Kline

Later he told me he’d been afraid to show me the painting. He thought I wouldn’t like the way he portrayed me: dragging myself across the field, fingers clutching dirt, my legs twisted behind. The arid moonscape of wheatgrass and timothy. That dilapidated house in the distance, looming up like a secret that won’t stay hidden. Faraway windows, opaque and unreadable. Ruts in the spiky grass made by an invisible vehicle, leading nowhere. Dish water sky.

People think the painting is a portrait, but it isn’t. Not really. He wasn’t even in the field; he conjured it from a room in the house, an entirely different angle. He removed rocks and trees and outbuildings. The scale of the barn is wrong. And I am not that frail young thing, but a middle-aged spinster. It’s not my body, really, and maybe not even my head.

He did get one thing right: Sometimes a sanctuary, some- times a prison, that house on the hill has always been my home. I’ve spent my life yearning toward it, wanting to escape it, paralyzed by its hold on me. (There are many ways to be crippled, I’ve learned over the years, many forms of paralysis.) My ancestors fled to Maine from Salem, but like anyone who tries to run away from the past, they brought it with them. Something inexorable seeds itself in the place of your origin. You can never escape the bonds of family history, no matter how far you travel. And the skeleton of a house can carry in its bones the marrow of all that came before.

Who are you, Christina Olson? he asked me once.

Nobody had ever asked me that. I had to think about it for a while.

If you really want to know me, I said, we’ll have to start with the witches. And then the drowned boys. The shells from distant lands, a whole room full of them. The Swedish sailor marooned in ice. I’ll need to tell you about the false smiles of the Harvard man and the hand-wringing of those brilliant Boston doctors, the dory in the haymow and the wheelchair in the sea. And eventually—though neither of us knew it yet—we’d end up here, in this place, within and without the world of the
painting.

I'm working on a quilt patch in the kitchen on a brilliant July afternoon, small squares of fabric and a pincushion and scissors on the table beside me, when I hear the hum of a car engine. Looking out the window toward the cove, I see a station wagon turn into the field about a hundred yards away. The engine cuts off and the passenger door swings open and Betsy James gets out, laughing and exclaiming. I haven’t seen her since last summer. She’s wearing a white halter top and denim shorts, a red bandanna tied around her neck. As I watch her coming toward the house, I am struck by how different she looks. Her sweet round face has thinned and lengthened; her chestnut hair is long and thick around her shoulders, her eyes dark and
shining. A red slash of lipstick. I think of her at nine years old, when she first came to visit, her small, nimble fingers braiding my hair as she sat behind me on the stoop. And here she is, seventeen and suddenly a woman.

“Hey there, Christina,” she says at the screen door, out of breath. “It’s been such a long time!”

“Come in,” I say from my chair. “You won’t mind if I don’t get up?”

“Of course not.” When she steps inside, the room smells of roses. (When did Betsy start wearing perfume?) She sweeps over to my chair and hugs my shoulders. “We arrived a few days ago. I surely am happy to be back.”

“You surely look it.”

She smiles, spots of color on her cheeks. “How are you and Al?”

“Oh, you know. Fine. The same.” “The same is good, yes?”

I smile. Sure. The same is good. “What are you making here?”

“Just a little thing. A baby quilt. Lora’s pregnant again.” “Such a generous auntie.” She reaches down and picks up a quilt square, a piece of calico, pink flowers with green leaves on a brown background. “I recognize this fabric.”

“I tore up an old dress.”

“I remember it. Small white buttons and a full skirt, right?” I think of my mother bringing home the Butterick pattern and the iridescent buttons and the calico. I think of Walton seeing me in the dress for the first time. I am awed by you. “That was a long time ago.”

“Well, it’s nice that old dress is getting a new life.” Gently she places the square back on the table and sifts through the others: white muslin, navy cotton, chambray faintly marked with ink. “All these bits and pieces. You’re making a family heirloom.”

“I don’t know about that,” I say. “It’s just a pile of scraps.” “One man’s trash . . .” She laughs and glances out the window.

“I completely forgot! I came up here for a cup of water, if you don’t mind.”

“Sit down, I’ll get you a glass.”

“Oh, it’s not for me.” She points at the station wagon in the field. “My friend wants to paint a picture of your house, but he needs water to do it.”

I squint at the car. A boy is sitting on the roof, looking at the sky. He’s got a large white pad of paper in one hand and what looks like a pencil in the other.

“He’s N. C. Wyeth’s son,” Betsy says in a stage whisper, as if someone might hear.

“Who?”

“You know N. C. Wyeth. The famous illustrator? Treasure Island? ”

Ah, Treasure Island. “Al loved that book. I think we still have it somewhere.”

“I think every boy in America has it somewhere. Well, his son’s an artist too. I just met him today.”

“You met him today, and you’re riding around in a car with him?”

“Yes, he’s—I don’t know. He seems trustworthy.” “Your parents don’t mind?”

“They don’t know.” She smiles sheepishly. “He showed up at the house this morning looking for my father, but my parents had gone off for a sail. I answered the door. And here we are.”

“That happens sometimes,” I say. “Where’s he from?” “Pennsylvania. His family has a summer place up here, in Port Clyde.”

“You seem to know an awful lot about him,” I say, arching an eyebrow.

Excerpted from the book A PIECE OF THE WORLD by Christina Baker Kline. Copyright © 2017 by Christina Baker Kline. Republished with permission of William Morrow.

This segment aired on February 15, 2017.

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