For some, the painting of a young woman in a pink dress lying in a field, looking toward a farmhouse, is hopeful. For others, it’s haunting. Is she escaping or yearning for home? It’s hard to tell — perhaps both.
The painting, called “Christina’s World,” is by acclaimed artist Andrew Wyeth and was painted in Maine in 1948. It now hangs in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It’s also the inspiration of a new novel by Bangor native Christina Baker Kline.
Based on a real-life person, Christina Olson, the painting’s setting depicts her Cushing home, where her family lived for generations. That same home became a place of creativity for Wyeth, who met the Olsons through his wife, Betsy. He painted there for nearly three decades using Christina and her brother as models.
Kline did extensive research to create a work of historical fiction that walks the line between reality and fantasy. In the novel, Kline imagines Christina’s life. She was a woman who suffered from a degenerative, undiagnosed or treated disease that impacted her whole life. She was a woman with a sharp mind made to leave school young by her father. And she was a woman who never really left home.
The resulting novel jumps between childhood and later adulthood, exploring Christina’s relationships, yearning for normalcy and how her pride impacted her life.
Kline, who now splits her time between New York and Mount Desert Island, said that she read many books, interviewed family members and befriended tour guides while researching for the novel.
“I sort of immersed myself in all things Wyeth and Olson,” Kline said. “I knew I needed to inhabit this character completely, and I was trying to stick to the real life facts of this real story.”
The touching story has a mix of sadness and hopefulness that the painting itself invokes. Christina is a complex character who is both sympathetic and infuriating.
“I was kind of blending fiction and nonfiction as I wrote it. I had to carefully navigate how to make her believable,” said Kline said.
Kline will be visiting Maine this summer as part of her book tour and expects to include Bangor among her stops.
“Bangor is very near and dear to my heart. … My sisters and I who all grew up there all have houses on MDI,” Kline said. “I try to come up other times of year as well … [and] I write in Maine. I like to write there at my house.”
“A Piece of the World,” is available where books are sold including independent bookstores in Maine like Print in Portland and The Briar Patch in Bangor.