June 11, 2018

White Oleander

How many children had this happened to? How many children were like me, floating like plankton in the wide ocean? I thought how tenuous the links were between mother and children, between friends, family, things you think are eternal. Everything could be lost, more easily than anyone could imagine.

White Oleander is first and foremost a story about loss. Astrid’s grip on her mother is tenuous even from the very beginning. Astrid is a victim of her mother’s whims and eccentricities as her mother makes no sacrifice for her child to have a stable life. Astrid’s mother, Ingrid, is aloof and manipulative and she concocts all sorts of rules about love and beauty and forces them on Astrid. Astrid suffers her first loss when Ingrid is finally sent to prison for murder. Astrid carries all of her emotional baggage and rules into new, albeit temporary, families. As Astrid travels to foster family after foster family, her list of losses only grows longer.

White Oleander is also a story of adventure. We journey with Astrid to a handful of group homes and foster homes, each with their own unique mores that Astrid has to reconcile with previously learned rules and customs, especially those she inherited from her mother. Astrid encounters so many hardships and unbelievable feats, whether it’s being attacked by dogs or having an affair with her foster mother’s boyfriend, that you have to keep reading to find out how she copes and what will happen next. In each stage of Astrid’s life, every minute detail is beautifully illustrated. The ugliest parts of Astrid’s experiences in foster care are brought to life through absolutely eloquent writing.

Thirdly, White Oleander is a story of growth. Astrid maintains correspondence with her mother throughout the the novel, of which we only see her mother’s half of the letters. Ingrid’s letters are mostly a self-centered and egotistic reflection of prison life but she also makes time to condemn and debase everything Astrid shares with her. Her mother’s incessant presence is a weight that drags Astrid down as she navigates the obstacles of growing up in foster care. In spite of this, Astrid still grows as a woman and comes to terms with her birth mother and all of the other maternal figures in her life.