Murder. Neglect. Loss. Starvation. These are only some of the horrors foster child Astrid Magnussen faces in Janet Fitch’s novel White Oleander, a literary reality check about how cruel our world can be to the “unwanted,” and what it truly means to be a mother. Though the book was published more than ten years ago (it was an Oprah’s Book Club selection), its appeal is timeless.
The book opens up in Astrid and her mother Ingrid’s California home. We learn right away that Ingrid is a poet, and nothing matters to her except for the art of crafting words. Ingrid is not one for enjoyment and pleasure, rarely eats and deliberately avoids the world around her, unless it can provide inspiration for her writing.
Ingrid’s disinterest translates to her relationship with her daughter. She never had a heart-to-heart discussion with Astrid, finding out about the details of her daughter’s life. She never encouraged Astrid to do well in school, or attended her class Christmas plays. However, she has a dangerously possessive relationship with her daughter, telling a young Astrid, “I am your home.” Ingrid seems to expect Astrid to become a carbon copy of herself, hardened personality and all.
Ingrid’s relationship with her daughter is not her only dangerous characteristic—she’s a murderer. Once Ingrid finds out that Barry, the man that she had fallen for—and even accepted into her closed-off world—was seeing other women, she poisons him. She accomplishes this by spreading a concoction she created from oleander sap and DMSO (an arthritis drug) around his home that permeates through his skin and brings about his death. Ingrid becomes the primary suspect of this murder and is sentenced to life in prison.
Thus begins Astrid’s journey into several foster homes, each with their own lessons and challenges. This is the longest and most heart-wrenching section of the book, as we watch Astrid face hardships that most children her age don’t even dream about in their nightmares. In one home, her foster mother fires a gun at her, in another, she is savagely bitten by dogs and in another, she is starved and reduced to eating out of the trash. In the one home where she actually feels loved, her foster mother commits suicide.
Through all of this, Astrid still has her mother on her mind. In the first couple of foster homes, she misses her mother and wants nothing more than to be with her. The two write to each other constantly, and Astrid revels in the mere scent of her mother’s letters.
As Astrid matures, developing her own opinions, a new-found sexual desire, and long-term life goals, she attempts to cut off her relationship with her mother. She ignores her mother’s letters, develops her own taste in fashion that her mother would disapprove of and befriends people that her mother wouldn’t offer a second glance. In Ingrid’s letters, she insists that Astrid cannot be mentally and emotionally separate from her, no matter how hard she tries. Astrid repeatedly—and quite tactfully—proves her mother wrong throughout the novel.
Janet Fitch does something clever in White Oleander, combining a traditional coming of age story with a commentary on the heartless, insensitive society we live in. Astrid was just another number in the foster care system, something dispensable—“18 and out.” Fitch shows us that in our society focused on “becoming somebody,” there is no room for those who are victims of their own upbringings. White Oleander was published 11 years ago, but these issues remain relevant in today’s society.
The book also leads us to question the role of a mother. Is Ingrid Magnussen really a mother? She may be possessive of her daughter, but does she truly love Astrid, understand her, and want her to be successful? Or, are her motives as a mother only self-serving?
Because the content is so riveting and emotional, readers are often compelled to insert themselves into the story, willing to be a mother figure for the displaced Astrid. Astrid leaves us emotionally drained, hoping to save her, but resolved that she is indeed strong enough to take care of herself.
Although White Oleander is a fictional work, Janet Fitch’s take on real-life challenges and her unforgettable characters remains on readers’ minds long after they turn the last page.
Little, Brown and Company 1999
White Oleander was released as a feature film in 2002, with Michelle Pfeiffer as Ingrid, and Alison Lohman as Astrid. Others in the film included Renée Zellweger and Robin Wright.