Among all the books I’ve read so far, I can say I do have a favorite that tops any list out there. I think we all have the one book that impressed us so much and goes beyond a source of entertainment. We relate to the novel as it inspires with the words that mean so much, characters we would leech onto and moments we can’t live without. Most importantly, our favorite book gives us a world we want to explore again and again, which helps us make sense of and conquer the space we actually exist in.
Today I present White Oleander. I adore this book! I have read it seven times already, some of it memorized. It was written by Janet Fitch, author of Kicks and Paint It Black. It was published back in 1999, became a #1 National Best Seller and earned a spot on Oprah’s Book Club.
The story is about Astrid and her journey through the California foster care system due to her single mother’s sudden imprisonment. The story is told through Astrid’s perspective, age 12 to about 20. She proves to be a great visual artist throughout the book, which she uses to express her coming-of-age journey. Astrid’s greatest struggle is to identify who she really is and finds it difficult because of the relationship with her mother, the foster homes she lives in and her self-solitude in between events.
A main focus of the work is the relationship between Astrid and her mother. Ingrid, a struggling poet, is not a woman one wants to mess with. There is a good chance she could be diagnosed as a socio/psychopath. She is headstrong, shallow, selfish, possessive, disregards other people’s emotions and allows her impulsive trait to cross boundaries.
Spread a malicious rumor.
Let a beloved old person’s dog out of the yard.
Suggest suicide to a severely depressed person.
Tell a child it isn’t very attractive or bright.
Put Drano in glassine folded papers and leave them on street corners.
Throw handfuls of useless foreign coins into a beggar’s cup,
and make sure they thank you profusely.
(Poem by Ingrid)
‘Loneliness is the human condition. Cultivate it. The way it tunnels into you allows your soul room to grow. Never expect to outgrow loneliness.’
(One of Ingrid’s lessons to Astrid)
My mother stroked the side of my face with her work-roughened finger,
deliberately scraping my skin.
I was a traitor. I had betrayed my master.
(Astrid visits Ingrid in prison with a favored foster mother)
For more insight on Ingrid, she is a poet to the bone and explains her thoughts, describes things and even insults people poetically. The way she speaks in this book is powerful, intoxicating and I love her for it. Dealing with people, let alone love, isn’t something Ingrid wants to do. Love is what caused her imprisonment. After being practically stalked, she lets someone in and ends up falling in love. When he ignores her, her crazy really sets off and she does things that scare him and Astrid. Ingrid digs a grave and proudly fills it with a grand coffin.
“Always learn poems by heart. They have to become the marrow in your bones. Like fluoride in the water, they’ll make your soul impervious to the world’s soft decay.”
(Ingrid’s thoughts on poetry)
“Isn’t it funny. I’m enjoying my hatred so much more than I ever enjoyed love. Love uses you. Changes its mind . . . But hatred, now. That’s something you can use. Sculpt. Wield. It’s hard or soft, however you need it. Love humiliates you, but hatred cradles you. It’s so soothing. I feel infinitely better now.”
(Hatred’s effect on Ingrid)
She stroked his new security door with the pads of her fingers like it was fur. “Taste his fear. It tastes just like champagne. Cold and crisp and absolutely without sweetness.”
(Ingrid enjoying the fear she has instilled)
“Don’t you dare ask me to accept Jesus as my savior, wash my soul in the Blood of the Lamb. Don’t even think of trying to redeem me. I regret NOTHING. No woman with any self-respect would have done less.”
(Ingrid’s reaction to the idea of repentance)
On her own, Astrid transitions through five different foster homes, six foster mothers that imposed their personalities, morals and beliefs, a few connections with foster-siblings, fights with orphans in the system and a whole lot of womanhood. When Ingrid’s “mothering” and words of advice through letters from prison are added into the mix, Astrid is left to figure which traits to adopt but falls into constant confusion and doubt, which piles on to her abandonment issues. She also deals with mirroring her mother’s personality, though she tries to resist, but does use some of Ingrid’s ways to survive some tough moments. Astrid is bold, curious, talented, sweet, a fighter and she did inherit the power of poetry from her mother. She’s a siren with a heartbreaking story.
I thought of my mother as Queen Christina, cool and sad, eyes trained on some distant horizon. That was where she belonged, in furs and palaces of rare treasures, fireplaces large enough to roast a reindeer, ships of Swedish maple. My deepest fear was that someday she would find her way back there and never return.
(Astrid expresses her greatest fear)
I couldn’t imagine owning beauty like my mother’s.
I wouldn’t dare. It would be too scary.
(One of Astrid’s thoughts about her mother)
The only answer was rain. Silence and tears. Nothing. I thought of my mother. What she would do if she were me. She would not hesitate. She would spare nothing to have what she wanted. And thinking of her, I felt something flow into my emptiness like a flexible rod of rebar climbing up my spine. I knew it was evil, what I was feeling, self-will, but if it was, then it was. I suddenly saw us on a giant chessboard, and saw my move . . . And I like the way she flinched, knowing I had caused the lines in her forehead. There was power in me now, where there had been none.
(Astrid’s thoughts when confronted by one of her foster mothers)
Astrid’s ultimate quest is to be reassured that her mother truly loves her. I know we all can relate to Astrid and her ride into the abyss that is self-identity and unconditional love. I can for sure! It’s the reason why I love this book. The way Astrid has to find herself isn’t easy, which is a great reality check for me. I read one of my old journals the other day and had to laugh. I was a “big baby” for no reason, complaining about things that can’t compare to greater hardships and tragedies. Fitch offers us insight into the foster care system and highlights the changes needed, which I appreciate. In the book, Astrid meets others dealing with similar issues, making this book so real.
I definitely recommend reading White Oleander. The characters are drawn out beautifully, Astrid tells her story with great timing and explanation since she is so observant and intelligent. I know everyone will be entertained by the moments she lives through, the people she meets, her relationships and the way she is constantly sorting things out for herself. I take my hat off to Fitch. She is a great writer of today.
Also, for the sake of info and entertainment, a movie has been made based on the film but I don’t recommend watching it to experience the story. A lot isn’t included and it feels rushed. However, I am in total agreement with the casting choice for Ingrid. Michelle Pheiffer is the perfect actress for the role. Every time I think of the book and Ingrid, I can’t help but picture Pheiffer Plus, she is an amazing actress, I adore her!
Anyway, run to a bookstore or search online for a copy of White Oleander. If you need some visual persuasion, the trailer for the film based on the book is below. If you need more persuasion, just consider the title of the book: White Oleanders are beautiful flowers that are extremely poisonous. Dark but, you have to admit, intriguing.
Enjoy and be inspired.