It is a case of life mirroring art.
Author Christina Baker Kline had just handed in her bestselling novel “Orphan Train” in the spring of 2012 when she was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer.
The following year, she was undergoing treatment while on tour with the book, wearing a wig over her bald head and immersed in the subject of her newly released novel, “A Piece of the World.”
“A Piece of the World” is written from the perspective of Anna Christina Olson, the subject of Andrew Wyeth’s famous painting “Christina’s World,” done in Cushing. Olson endured a lifetime of neuro-muscular derived infirmity.
Wyeth’s 1948 tempera painting of Olson – which now hangs in the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York – depicts a thin woman in a pink dress, stretched out in a field, looking at a large, weathered house in the distance.
“‘Orphan Train’ came out in April 2013, and that entire year, I was in treatment,” Kline said. “The reason I am telling you is I identified with Christina Olson in a way that I hadn’t expected to. Her courage and fortitude and even her stubbornness were very much connected with my own will to survive.”
In that time, five friends that Kline, who summers in Southwest Harbor, made while undergoing treatment died. Her mother also passed three months after suffering a massive stroke.
“I was very aware of my own mortality. Christina was as well,” said Kline. “She had people dying left and right – her mother, her father. I felt all of that very deeply.”
“I found such strength and joy in having something to think about and talk about and that was not in the world of cancer,” she said. “Depression is a real issue. This gave me something to think about beyond my own treatment.”
Olson’s disease has since been diagnosed by Marc Patterson, a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., as likely Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, which is inherited.
Despite coping with breast cancer and her mother’s death, Kline managed to deliver what is already a New York Times best seller, and she is again on a coast-to-coast book tour.
Kline said she was mulling over ideas for her next novel about the time she was relaxing over a glass of wine with a fellow author.
“When I finished ‘Orphan Train,’ I wanted to stay in that early to mid-20th century landscape,” she said. “I wanted to look at how people survive hard times in parts of rural American and the emotional tools needed to survive.”
Kline’s friend had just seen Wyeth’s painting at MoMA and told Kline that she bore a resemblance to the woman in the painting.
“I knew right then I wanted to explore this story,” she said.
The setting for the painting in Cushing was familiar to Kline, who was taken there on a family trip with her parents and three sisters.
Her father, William Baker, formerly chairman of the history department at the University of Maine, liked nothing more than to take his four daughters on one cultural jaunt after another.
“Once we moved to Maine, my parents were determined to expose us to Maine artists and literature and culture,” Kline said. “We took a lot of field trips.”
One expedition was to the Olson House in Cushing, which is now a museum operated by the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland.
“I grew up knowing about the painting,” Kline said. “Christina and I had the same name. My grandmother’s name was Christina, and she was raised in a similar way to Christina Olson. There were all these echoes for me.”
When Kline was 8 years old, her father gave her a woodcut inspired by Wyeth’s painting and she would make up stories about the thin girl in a pale pink dress, reaching toward a weathered house on a bluff.
Today, all four Baker daughters own homes in Southwest Harbor, and one, Claire, lives here year-round with her family.
“I wrote most of the book in my house in Maine,” said Kline, who also has a home in Montclair, N.J. “The house was owned by ships’ captains. It was built in 1881.”
In “A Piece of the World,” Kline describes in careful detail the difficulties Olson encountered as a near-invalid living in a home without electricity or running water.
As Olson ages, in real life and in the novel, her disease progresses until she can barely walk at all and crawls about the house, sleeping on a pallet on the first floor.
As a young woman, Olson’s world is enlarged over the course of four summers when she meets and is courted by a young man who was entering Harvard in the fall.
He tells Olson he means what he says when he promises they will have a life together, but that ha
ppy ending never materializes, and Christina faces the grim reality of a life of infirmity with ever-dwindling family.
Wyeth’s appearance in 1939 is a welcome relief. He was introduced to Olson and her brother, Alvaro, by Wyeth’s soon-to-be-wife, Betsy James.
Every day during the summer season, Wyeth appears at the Olson’s door with eggs scavenged from the hen house for use in his tempera paint.
He works on the second floor, painting Olson and her brother and life on the farm. Wyeth captures the reverence in simple kitchen objects as well as the peacefulness and endurance of the home’s occupants.
Kline did extensive research about Olson. Artist David Rockwell, Andrew Wyeth’s nephew, read the novel at an early stage and shared information with Kline.
“David gives tours and talks at the Olson House and has a lifelong interest in this story and the relationship between his uncle and Christina,” Kline said.
Kline said that although the book is fiction, virtually every story in it is true.
She assembled all of her research into a 50-page document and sketched a careful timeline. Some accounts Kline reviewed contradicted others, “so I followed my own intuition,” she said.
“Some people call it a fictional biography,” she said. “In every instance, I wanted to try to figure out what Christina was feeling about events that sometimes were very difficult, or things that she did that people might feel were selfish in some ways.”
“As a novelist, I wouldn’t have chosen to make her behave in ways in which she did in real life. I wanted her to be both believable and understandable. She was irascible in some ways, and stubborn and headstrong.”
Kline said she can understand how Christina was threatened by a new relationship between her brother, Alvaro, and a woman in the area. Had Alvaro left, what would have become of Christina?
“She hated being pitied. Alvaro never pitied her and treated her as did Wyeth, like a sentient person. Like Wyeth, he did not condescend.”
Kline has said that she feels as though she learned to write with this novel although it is her sixth.
In addition to “Orphan Train” and “A Piece of the World,” she wrote “Bird in Hand,” “The Way Life Should Be,” “Desire Lines” and “Sweet Water.”
“Every novel teaches me different things,” Kline said. “Every one, I hope, gets better. When you write a literary novel, you start with character, and from character comes motivation. Motivation leads to action, and action leads to consequences.
“When I started with this story, I had to work backwards. I had to learn who Christina was through the consequences of her actions. What it taught me is that in the past I may have been too tempted, too compelled, to create external resolutions. I had to dig into her and make the resolution internal.”
The novel ends the day Olson first sees “Christina’s World” hanging above Wyeth’s couch in his summer home.
“She kisses his hand,” Kline said. “I almost didn’t put this in. It felt a little too sentimental.”
Kline is already at work on a seventh novel, this one about the transportation of convict women from England to Tasmania in the mid-19th century.
She said it tapped into her experience teaching in a women’s prison as well as the time she spent in Australia as a child while the family lived in England.
“I didn’t realize until just now that I am ready to write this story,” Kline said.