The Story behind A PIECE OF THE WORLD
by Christina Baker Kline
“The world of New England is in that house – spidery, like crackling skeletons rotting in the attic – dry bones. It’s like a tombstone to sailors lost at sea, the Olson ancestor who fell from the yardarm of a square-rigger and was never found. It’s the doorway of the sea to me, of mussels and clams and sea monsters and whales. There’s a haunting feeling there of people coming back to a place …
“My memory can be more of a reality than the thing itself. I kept thinking about the day I would paint Christina in her pink dress, like a faded lobster shell I might find on a beach, crumpled. I kept building her in my mind – a living being there on a hill whose grass was really growing. Someday she was going to be buried under it. Soon her figure was actually going to crawl across the hill in my picture toward that dry tinderbox of a house on top. I felt the loneliness of that figure – perhaps the same that I felt myself as a kid. It was as much my experience as hers …
“In Christina’s World I worked on that hill for a couple of months, that grass, building up the ground to make it come toward you, a surge of earth, like the whole planet … When it came time to lay Christina’s figure against the planet I’d created for her all those weeks, I put this pink tone on her shoulder – and it almost blew me across the room.”
– Andrew Wyeth
When I was eight years old, growing up in Bangor, Maine, my father gave me a framed poster of the painting Christina’s World. It reminded him of me, he said, and I understood why: our shared name, the familiar Maine setting, the wispy flyaway hair. Throughout my childhood, staring at the poster on the wall above my bed, I made up stories about this slight girl in a pale pink dress with her back to the viewer, reaching toward a weathered gray house on a bluff in the distance.
Over the years I came to believe that the painting is a Rorschach test, a magic trick, a sleight of hand. As David Michaelis writes in Wondrous Strange: The Wyeth Tradition, “The down-to-earth naturalism of Wyeth’s paintings is deceptive. In his work, all is not as it seems.” Andrew Wyeth’s paintings always have an undercurrent of wonder and mystery; he was fascinated with the darker aspects of human experience.
You get glimpses of this in the arid, dry-as-bones grasses rendered in startlingly precise detail, the wreck of a house on a hill with a mysterious ladder leading to a second-story window, a lone piece of laundry floating like an apparition in the breeze. At first glance the slim woman in the grass appears to be languidly relaxed, but a closer look reveals odd dissonances. Her arms are strangely thin and twisted, like misshapen sticks. And perhaps she is older than she appears. She seems poised, alert, yearning toward the house, and yet hesitant. Is she afraid? Her face is turned from the viewer, but she appears to be gazing at a darkened window on the second floor. What does she see in its shadows?
After finishing my novel Orphan Train, I began to look for another story that would engage my mind and heart as completely. Having learned a great deal about early- to-mid 20th-century America as part of my research, I thought it would be fruitful to linger in that time period. As with Orphan Train, I liked the idea of taking a real historical moment of some significance and, blending fiction and nonfiction, filling in the details, illuminating stories that have been hidden or obscured.
Over the next six months I immersed myself in Christina’s world. I sat in front of the actual painting for hours at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, listening to the confused, perturbed, intrigued, dismissive, passionate comments of passersby from all over the globe. (My favorite, from a Danish woman: “It’s just so … creepy.”) I studied the works of all three Wyeths – N.C., his son Andrew, and Andrew’s son Jamie – to get a sense of the rich and complex family legacy. In Maine I became intimately familiar with the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland, which has an entire building devoted to Wyeth art, and the Christina’s World homestead in Cushing, an old saltwater farm that is now a museum. I interviewed art historians and American historians and became friends with a tour guide from the Olson house who sent me articles and letters I never would’ve discovered on my own. I bought and read dozens of biographies, autobiographies, obituaries, magazine and newspaper articles, art histories, art books, and criticisms. I read an entire library’s collection of books on the Salem Witch Trials, which play a role in the family’s history. I collected postcards and, yes, I even bought another poster of Christina’s World to hang on my wall.
Here’s what I discovered. Christina Olson, descended on one side from the notorious chief magistrate in the Salem Witch Trials and on the other from a poor Swedish peat-farming clan, was uniquely poised to become an iconic American symbol. In Wyeth’s painting she is both resolute and yearning, hardy and vulnerable, exposed and enigmatic. Alone in a sea of dry grass, she is the archetypal individual against a backdrop of nature, fully present in the moment and yet a haunting reminder of the immensity of time. As MOMA curator Laura Hoptman writes in Wyeth: Christina’s World, “The painting is more a psychological landscape than a portrait, a portrayal of a state of mind rather than a place.”
Like the silhouetted figure in James Whistler’s Whistler’s Mother (1871) and the plain-featured couple in Grant Wood’s 1909 painting American Gothic, Christina embodies many of the traits we have come to think of as distinctively American: rugged individualism and quiet strength, defiance in the face of obstacles, unremitting perseverance.
As I did with Orphan Train, I tried to adhere to the actual historical facts wherever possible in writing A Piece of the World. Like the real Christina, my character was born in 1893 and grew up in an austere house on a barren hill in Cushing, Maine with three brothers. A hundred years earlier, three of her ancestors had fled from Massachusetts in midwinter, changing the spelling of their family name to Hathorn along the way, to escape the taint of association with their relative John Hathorne, the presiding judge in the Salem Witch Trials and the only magistrate who never recanted. On the scaffold, one of the convicted witches put a curse on Hathorne’s family. The specter of the trials clung to them through generations; it was said among the townspeople of Cushing that those three Hathorns had brought the witches with them when they fled. Another relative, Nathaniel Hawthorne – who also changed the spelling of his name – wrote about his great-great grandfather Hathorne’s unremitting ruthlessness in Young Goodman Brown, a tale about how those who fear the darkness in themselves are the most likely to see it in other people.
Another true story became an equally significant part of my novel. For generations, the house on the hill was known as the Hathorn house. But early in the winter of 1890, in the midst of a raging snowstorm, a fishing vessel bringing lime to make mortar and bricks became stuck in the ice of the nearby St. George River channel, and a young Swedish sailor named Johan Olauson was stranded. The ship captain, a Cushing native, offered to take him in. Olauson walked across the ice to Captain Maloney’s cottage, where he hunkered down for the winter, waiting for the thaw to melt the ice so he could put back to sea. Just up the hill from the cottage was a magnificent white house belonging to a respected sea captain, Samuel Hathorn. Johan soon learned the story of the family on Hathorn Hill: they were on the brink of “daughtering out,” meaning that no male heirs had survived to carry on the family name. Within several months, the young sailor had taught himself English, changed his name to John Olson, and made his presence known to the “spinster” Hathorn daughter, Kate – at 34, six years his senior. Soon enough, they were engaged. In a one-month span, Samuel Hathorn died and John Olson married Kate, taking over the farm. Their first child, Christina, was born a year later, and the big white homestead became known as the Olson house. The Hathorns had daughtered out.
By all accounts, from an early age Christina was an active and vibrant presence. She had a lust for life, a fierce intelligence, and a determination not to be pitied, despite the degenerative disease that stole her mobility. (Though she was never correctly diagnosed in her lifetime, neurologists now believe she had a syndrome called Charcot- Marie-Tooth, a hereditary disorder that damages the nerves to the arms and legs.) Christina refused to use a wheelchair; as she became increasingly immobilized she took to dragging herself around. Several years ago the actress Claire Danes portrayed Christina Olson in an hour-long tour-de-force dance performance that emphasized her ferocious desire to move freely despite her devastating disease.
Quick of wit and sharp of tongue, Christina was a force to be reckoned with. Late in life – with her straw-like hair and hooked nose, her spinsterhood and independent nature – she was rumored among some of the townspeople of Cushing to be a witch herself. Andrew Wyeth variously called her a “witch” and a “queen” and “the face of Maine.”
Wyeth first appeared at Christina’s front door – along with Betsy James, who’d been visiting the Olson farm since she was a girl – in 1939. He was 22, Betsy 17, Christina 46. He began coming around almost daily, talking with Christina for hours, and sketching and painting landscapes, still lifes, and portraits. He painted the house from many angles, later commenting in his autobiography, “I had a feeling that it wouldn’t be long before this fragile, crackling dry, bony house disappeared. I’m very conscious of the ephemeral nature of the world. There are cycles. Things pass. They do not hold still.” About the objects he painted inside the house, Wyeth mused, “I loved the defused light hitting all those ragged things, and how the peculiar shadows were cast from those strange buckets.” He painted things that stood in for people: Alvaro’s dory dry-docked in the loft of the barn after he gave up lobstering to take care of Christina, vibrant red geraniums in the kitchen with only a glimpse of a figure behind. “Christina’s barely seen – just that flash of her striped shirt,” he said. “What interested me about her was that she’d come in at odd places, odd times. The great English painter John Constable used to say that you never have to add life to a scene, for if you sit quietly and wait, life will come – sort of an accident in the right spot. That happened to me all the time – happened lots with Christina.” For the next thirty years, Christina was Andrew Wyeth’s muse and his inspiration. In each other, I believe, they came to recognize their own contradictions. Both embraced austerity but craved beauty; both were curious about other people and yet pathologically private. They were perversely independent and yet reliant on others to take care of their basic needs: Wyeth on his wife Betsy and Christina on Alvaro.
In becoming an artist’s muse – a seemingly passive role – Christina finally achieved the autonomy and purpose she craved her entire life. Instinctively, Wyeth managed to get at the core of Christina’s self. Like the house, like the landscape, she perseveres. As an embodiment of the strength of the American character, she is vibrant, pulsating, immortal.