Janet Fitch’s first novel, White Oleander is, hopefully, an exaggerated account of the strife and horror children can face when innocently doomed to enter and dwell within the foster-care system. I say “can” face, because I know there are foster-care situations full of love that have benefited youngsters who have nowhere else to turn.
White Oleander is full of stories and situations that should never happen, but sometimes do. Perhaps one day Fitch will write another novel about successful foster-care families to counter this sad account.
At age 14, Astrid should have had fun. She should have gone out with friends, meeting boys, putting posters up in her room, and receiving guidance from her mother. Instead, Astrid pretty much ignores the outside world while she worries about her mother and yearns for the slightest recognition from her. Instead, she could hear her mother’s criticism in everything she did.
Her mother, Ingrid, is a beautiful, self-centered, bitter, pretentious, manipulative, snob who feels she is some kind of Norse goddess. She is a starving poet and thinks her art, her choice of music and men, and even her diet make her superior to all others. Her daughter is someone she seems to remember to feed once in a while.
When a man whom she feels she lowered herself to date from the start rejects Ingrid, she loses it. She is so wild with fury she goes to the limit and kills the man. This seals Astrid’s fate, as well as her own, and when she goes off to prison, Astrid is forced to begin an outrageous journey through foster-care homes.
White Oleander is like hearing about every lousy foster-care situation in the world all at once. In one home, Astrid learns about love and sex—thanks to the foster mom’s boyfriend. She gets shot, she gets abused, she gets moved many times. Once, it seemed she got lucky and found a decent home with an actress named Claire.
You start to think she will have a chance. When that falls apart, Astrid continues to shuffle from place to place. The listener can grow weary, feeling that surely, no one child would be allowed to suffer this much. Ingrid haunts her from prison with letters of whacked out advice and lines of news about herself. She was writing, organizing, jogging, and being strong.
She isn’t concerned about Astrid, and gets jealous in the times that Astrid seems to be doing well. One line in the story describes Ingrid quite well. “Ingrid could damage you just by passing by you on the way to the bathroom.”
Astrid struggles to learn who she is. She still loves her mother, but finally sees Ingrid for what she is. It doesn’t help that the small community of her mother’s followers, those who liked her poetry, especially the poems from prison, are always more interested in how Ingrid is faring in prison than how her abandoned daughter is faring about out on the streets.
Astrid learns about the adult world from the constraints of being a youngster. She wonders if, and how, she will conquer her loneliness and find a place in the world that she can make home. The caseworkers in White Oleander are portrayed as overworked and, for the most part, uncaring people. I realize that this can be true of social agencies and workers, but the extent of the apathy and blindness to some of the situations and people in the book are a little overdone.
What I would have found more interesting and valuable would have been a book based on a real life story of someone in Astrid’s situation. I think being fiction left too much room for exaggeration, but it certainly is an eye-opener and has a place as a portrayal of what can happen when government systems are over-burdened and children fall through the cracks of society.
Oprah Winfrey narrates with great feeling and obvious empathy. Perhaps her voice was a bit too mature for the part of Astrid, from whom we hear the story, but she reads with such talent that this fact is soon forgotten. She also doesn’t do men’s voices well in this book. Especially Claire’s husband.