Summertime in the Belgrades
August 17 – 23
A Piece of the World
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by Martha F. Barkley
All last summer I was looking for this next novel by famed Maine author of Orphan Train, Christina Baker Kline. She presented Orphan Train in Charleston, SC where elementary teachers were familiar with this history of orphans being sent on trains to populate towns at the end of train lines out west. Many children's books on the subject. Finally Kline's novel reached adults, too, with her fine research and interviews of orphan descendants all over the USA.
I read the new library book last fall when A Piece of the World was published. Kline's paperback version was published in the spring with an interesting different view of part of the iconic painting by Andrew Wyeth. My husband Frank and I explored Cushing, Me. several summers ago and we found the Olson House painted in "Christina's World." We walked around the huge ship captain's house and down the hill to the family cemetery near the water. We found Christina's grave.
Christina's crippled body and struggles, the Olson House history, Andrew Wyeth's friendship with the Olson family and the hard, cold Winters are portrayed graphically in this novel. It is not an easy read, but I did reread it before my Charleston book group discussed it in March. I found the second read more pleasurable with the language of summer very soothing in contrast to the harsh difficulties of winter for crippled Christina.
She scrubbed and baked and sewed her own clothes. Christina was a marvel for painter Andrew Wyeth. Betsy Wyeth, Andy's wife, introduced the two and gradually Andy returned everyday with paints and easels, using the empty, second floor of the Olson House as a studio. The simple, basic life of the Olsons spoke to the picture perfect point of view that Andrew Wyeth treasured in his fine art work.
N.C. Wyeth painted in thick oils with bright hues. The Treasure Island classic and many others had his brightly painted covers. Andrew Wyeth, however, as the artist's son, developed a different style. So did Jamie Wyeth, as well, the next generation and third artist of note, all summering in Maine and living most of life in Brandywine, Pa.
It wasn't until I read this book twice, thoroughly enjoying the author's personal reflections on the artist and the cripple, that I finally noted Christina in both the author's name and the Olson's daughter's name. Can you believe that? It stunned me because I had not noted it from the get go!
The author lived many winters in Maine, so she could truly convey the trials of Christina Olson. The slight limp in Andrew Wyeth's leg was also depicted and both quiet natures of Andy and Christina. So many beautiful summers are described and sailing was something Christina could do quite well! Disappointments were great and tragedies in the Wyeth family were also included. This novel is historical fiction at its very best, especially if you love Maine.
Some readers may judge Christina's choices harshly, but I found her loving care of elderly parents really quite remarkable. Her brother also helped with the daily chores all year long. The large farm becomes smaller as the four remaining Olsons live out their final days in the huge house. Fields of crops shrink as people age. Winter seems to sap everyone's strength, but finally the lilacs bloom by the door in spring.
Life and warmth returns once again and Andrew Wyeth paints the stark beauty from within the bare and simple Olson House rooms and the huge hill outside. Christina at the bottom of the hill almost looks like a slender model in her homemade lobster pink dress. The paperback reveals a clothesline from the house to the barn with one pink dress flying in the wind, drying on the line. What different perspectives the hardback cover has from that of the paperback. I think Andrew Wyeth would like both covers of this very special historic novel.