By Leslie Lindsay
From the New York Times bestselling author of the smash hit ORPHAN TRAIN comes a stunning novel inspired by Andrew Wyeth’s famous—and mystifying—painting, “Christina’s World.” A PIECE OF THE WORLD is lucid, well-told, and highly transportive.
I have a thing with art. Be it writing, reading, visual art, music, even nature, I’m swept away with the creative magic that appears at the hands of an artist. When those worlds collide, as they do in Christina Baker Kline’s A PIECE OF THE WORLD, my heart sings.
“Christina’s World” hung at my great-aunt’s house in her den. Like many, I stared at that painting and imagined the breeze in my hair, the sweet scent of dried grass, lingered in that weather-worn house. And then, simply forgot about it. Christina Baker Kline brings the painting to the forefront once again with her use of tremendous description. She gives that women in the painting a name, a life…rather, that woman always existed, unbeknownst to me, and here, she comes alive, fully formed.
The story is told entirely from Christina’s POV and jumps around in time a bit, piecing together a delightful mosaic of art and color. Set in early-to-mid 1900s Maine and Boston, A PIECE OF THE WORLD thrusts the reader into a rugged, authentic landscape. There’s a tiny bit of a love story, but ultimately A PIECE OF THE WORLD is historical fiction, about the importance of family, artist and muse coming together, and what it means to be seen.
Evocative and astonishing, I so enjoyed A PIECE OF THE WORLD. Please join me as I chat with the lovely Christina Baker Kline.
Leslie Lindsay: Like many, I read and devoured THE ORPHAN TRAIN.* When I learned about A PIECE OF THE WORLD, I knew I had to read it. You mention in the afterward your inspiration to write about the Andrew Wyeth painting. I’m paraphrasing, but it was along the lines of, “I wanted to stay in that time period [of THE ORPHAN TRAIN].” Can you shed a little more light on that?
Christina Baker Kline: I learned a lot about early-to-mid twentieth century rural America when I was researching ORPHAN TRAIN, and I found it incredibly interesting — especially the question of how people survived hard times and the emotional resources they needed to get by. What is it like to live with profound deprivation, without any modern amenities, far from other people?
L.L.: You did a huge amount of research for A PIECE OF THE WORLD. And it shows. I’m curious what that process was like for you. Margaret George’s ideal is to read everything she can on a subject/time period, visit the place in question, then start writing. Do you follow a similar formula?
Christina Baker Kline: I read art histories, biographies, nonfiction accounts of the Salem Witch Trials, seafaring journals, memoirs about living in Maine and living in the woods; visited museums and the Olson House; interviewed friends and family members and tour guides and curators; watched documentaries. I took pages and pages of notes, which I eventually turned into a 50-page single-spaced timeline that became my bible. I wrote the story chronologically, stopping along the way to do further research as necessary, but in the end I threaded the Wyeth story throughout the story of Christina Olson’s growing up years.
L.L.: I know Grant Wood’s “American Gothic,” house still stands in Eldon, IA and has been turned into a type of museum. Can one actually visit the old farm house where Christina Olson lived? It seemed pretty dilapidated in the novel, I can’t imagine what remains…
Christina Baker Kline: It was renovated recently and opened again last summer (it’s open from Memorial Day to Labor Day). It’s a gorgeous place to spend an afternoon, and the tour guides are incredibly knowledgeable. Well worth a visit!
L.L.: Christina Olson’s ancestry fascinates me. I may have my facts mixed up, but I understand on one side of her family, she descends from chief magistrate of the Salem witch trials, and on the other, from the Hawthorns, as in Nathaniel. Do I have that right? Can you clarify the family tree for us?
Christina Baker Kline: John Hathorne, whom Christina was descended from on her mother’s side, was the Chief Magistrate of the 1692 Salem Witch Trials, and the only one of the three judges who never recanted. He went to his death (in peaceful prosperity) believing that he was fully justified in sentencing 19 women, two dogs, and one man to death for witchcraft. After Hathorne died, his Salem relatives felt tainted by association. Three Hathorne men, promised land on the coast of Maine if they claimed it in winter, changed the spelling of their name, fled to a remote point on the coast, and built three log cabins — one of which became the house in the painting Christina’s World. Nathaniel Hawthorne, another relative on that side of the family, also changed the spelling of his name and left Salem. He spent the rest of his life writing about people like his ancestor Hathorne who were determined to root out evil in others while denying it in themselves. (Think of Young Goodman Brown and The Scarlet Letter, for example.)
Christina’s father left home at 15 to become a sailor. He had grown up in a small house in Sweden with 10 other people and a cow; his parents were poor peat farmers. You can see why he might’ve left and never looked back!
L.L.: I find that writing is such an introspective process. I often learn more, not just about my subject, but also myself. What did you uncover about yourself in the process of writing?
Christina Baker Kline: I learned that I will never again write a novel about real people, some of whom are still alive. I’m kidding — sort of. This was the hardest book I’ve ever written, in part because I tried to stick with the facts of the true-life story as much as possible. I think it made me a better writer, ultimately. Sometimes I’ve been too concerned about reconciling storylines when perhaps it would’ve been better to leave things unresolved. In A PIECE OF THE WORLD, I had to dig deeper, to effect internal resolutions.
L.L.: What do you hope others take away from A PIECE OF THE WORLD?
Christina Baker Kline: Christina Olson, the woman in the painting, had a hard life in many ways. She was a “spinster,” as they called it then, and disabled. Despite her brilliance, she was taken out of school at the age of 12. But she found beauty, meaning, and grace in unexpected places. Because she didn’t live a conventional life, she was able to open her home and self to Andrew Wyeth. As a result, I believe her life was profound and meaningful. Ultimately, as the figure at the center of Christina’s World, she achieved immortality. [You may also enjoy this article from MoMA on this painting]
L.L.: What’s captured your attention now? What keeps you awake at night?
Christina Baker Kline: I’m working on a new novel inspired by a little-known story about the convict women sent from England and Scotland to Tasmania, Australia in the mid-nineteenth century. It’s very exciting and I’m having a great time doing the research.
L.L.: What question should I have asked, but may have forgotten?
Christina Baker Kline: My favorite animal is my rescue pup, Lola, who is four years old, half Corgi and half Australian Shepherd. She doesn’t bark and is gentle and easy going. She reminds me of a cat (or maybe a deer — see pic below!). She’s the perfect writing companion.
L.L.: Christina, I so loved this story. Thank you, thank you for taking the time to chat. Enjoy the rest of your book tour.
Christina Baker Kline: Leslie, thank you!
For more information, to purchase A PIECE OF THE WORLD, or to connect with Christina Baker Kline through social media, please see:
*ORPHAN TRAIN has recently been condensed into a young reader’s edition (ORPHAN TRAIN GIRL, available May 2 2017 from HarperCollins), which I plan to read aloud to my two girls, ages 10 and 12 years…even though they are certainly capable themselves!
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, around these parts of the Internet:
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[Cover and author image courtesy of C.B. Kline and used with permission. Author image credit: Karin Diana. Image of ORPHAN GIRL retrieved from author’s website on 4.3.17. Image of Nathaniel Hawthorn retrieved from Wikipedia, Christina Olson home retrieved from Farnsworth Art Museum webpage, all on 4.3.17]