White Oleander Summary

Janet Fitch

White Oleander

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White Oleander Summary

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Janet Fitch’s 1999 novel, White Oleander, explores the traditional literary coming-of-age theme in the context of a young girl who spends time in a series of foster homes after being separated from her mother. Poet Ingrid Magnussen has been raising her twelve-year-old daughter, Astrid, as a single parent in Los Angeles, California. Astrid is an attractive, free spirit, much like her mother in many ways. Together, they live somewhat isolated from others. Their lives take a dramatic turn when Barry Kolker becomes Ingrid’s lover. In time, Ingrid finds out that he is cheating on her. When several attempts to salvage their relationship are unsuccessful, Ingrid plots her revenge. She breaks into Barry’s house and poisons the surfaces of everything she can with a mixture of an arthritis drug called DMSO and oleander sap, which is fatal when absorbed into the skin. The act leads to Barry’s death, after which Ingrid is arrested, charged with murder, and sent to prison.

Once Ingrid is imprisoned, Astrid begins living her life in a series of foster homes. The first person with whom she is placed is Starr, a recovering drug addict, who also is a former stripper with two children of her own and two other foster children in her home. Her incentive for taking in foster children stems from her own children having been in the foster care system when, because of her drug and alcohol addictions, she was unable to care for them herself. By the time Astrid is fourteen, she is involved in an affair with Ray, Starr’s boyfriend who lives with the family. As this is going on, Ray pays less and less attention to Starr, who relapses into substance abuse. During an alcohol-fueled spat with Ray about Astrid, Starr shoots the young girl who suffers bone wounds and is hospitalized. During her time in the hospital, Astrid develops a dependency on Demerol, a painkiller she was given, and starts to abuse it.

Ed and Marvel Turlock are the next foster parents Astrid is placed with. They have two young children, and Astrid becomes the family’s free, live-in babysitter. She does, however, manage to establish a friendship with a neighbor of the Turlock’s. Olivia Johnstone is an African-American woman whose lifestyle appeals to Astrid. Olivia, rich and beautiful, is also a prostitute who is hated by Ed and Marvel for that and because of her race. Olivia teaches Astrid things about the ways of the world. She explains that men have the money and power and that women can use their femininity to their benefit. Later, she realizes that Astrid, not understanding everything Oliva told her in the context in which it was offered, uses sexual acts as a commodity. As time passes, Astrid is thrown out by the Turlocks after she gets drunk and spends the night at Olivia’s house.

Amelia Ramos, an Hispanic interior designer from Argentina is the next person to take Astrid in. She lives in a large home in Hollywood and has a son who has AIDS. Amelia has Latina girls as foster children and, while she does feed them dinner, the food remains locked up at other times. The girls are constantly hungry—Astrid to the point that it is unhealthy, and she begins to scavenge for food in the garbage during lunch at school. Soon, she receives a new foster placement with the help of a new case manager. When she joins the household of actress Claire Richards and her husband Ron, Astrid finds herself doing well in school and taking an interest in art. She has an increasing anger towards Ingrid but continues to correspond with her incarcerated mother. Claire, meanwhile, thinks Ron is having an affair and tensions between the couple escalate. Astrid is seventeen when Claire kills herself by taking an overdose.

Astrid finds herself placed in the MacLaren Children’s Center, which tends to be the last stop for foster children without placements. She develops a friendship with a boy named Paul Trout with whom she shares an interest in art and, naturally, a background in the foster care system. In spite of having had even worse experiences than Astrid, Paul is able to become a loyal friend to her. Meanwhile, Ingrid has a lawyer trying to get her released from prison, but for this to happen, Astrid would have to lie on Ingrid’s behalf. As the mother and daughter talk, Ingrid realizes the damage her past actions have done to Astrid. She decides not to ask her to lie for her.

By the time Astrid is twenty, she and Paul have relocated to Berlin, German, where Astrid creates works of art. She thinks of her mother and her life in California at times, but embraces her new life with Paul in Europe.