Janet Astrid is the only child of a single mother, Ingrid, a brilliant, obsessed poet who wields her luminous beauty to intimidate and manipulate men. Astrid worships her mother and cherishes their private world full of ritual and mystery-but their idyll is shattered when Astrid's mother falls apart over a lover. Deranged by rejection, Ingrid murders the man, and is sentenced to life in prison.
White Oleander is the unforgettable story of Astrid's journey through a series of foster homes and her efforts to find a place for herself in impossible circumstances. Each home is its own universe, with a new set of laws and lessons to be learned. With determination and humor, Astrid confronts the challenges of loneliness and poverty, and strives to learn who a motherless child in an indifferent world can become. Tough, irrepressible, funny, and warm, Astrid is one of the most indelible characters in recent fiction.
White Oleander is an unforgettable story of mothers and daughters, burgeoning sexuality, the redemptive powers of art, and the unstoppable force of the emergent self. Written with exquisite beauty and grace, this is a compelling debut by an author poised to join the ranks of today's most gifted novelists.
Janet Fitch was born in Los Angeles, a third-generation native, and grew up in a family of voracious readers. As an undergraduate at Reed College, Fitch had decided to become an historian, attracted to its powerful narratives, the scope of events, the colossal personalities, and the potency and breadth of its themes. But when she won a student exchange to Keele University in England, where her passion for Russian history led her, she awoke in the middle of the night on her twenty-first birthday with the revelation she wanted to write fiction. "I wanted to Live, not spend my life in a library. Of course, my conception of being a writer was to wear a cape and have Adventures."
Since then, she has had more than a few Adventures. In addition, she has published short stories in literary journals such as Black Warrior Review, Rain City Review, and A Room of One's Own, briefly attended film school in the director's program at the University of Southern California, worked at various times as a typesetter, a proofreader, a graphic artist, a freelance journalist, the managing editor of American Film magazine, and the editor of The Mancos Times Tribune, a weekly newspaper in the mountains of Southwestern Colorado. Currently, she reviews books for Speak magazine in San Francisco, and teaches fiction writing privately in Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband and eight year old daughter.
"White Oleander," the story which grew into her novel, was named as a distinguished story in Best American Short Stories 1994.
Interestingly enough, the story was rejected from The Ontario Review with a note from Joyce Carol Oates, stating that while she enjoyed it, it seemed more like the first chapter of a novel than a short story. It had not occurred to Fitch to extend the story, but she decided to take a chance on this advice and wrote her novel.
Her writing process is simple. "I write all the time, whether I feel like it or not," she says. "I never get inspired unless I'm already writing. I write every day, including weekends. For writers there are no weekends. It's just that your family is around, looking mournful, wondering when you're going to pay attention to them."
Her journalistic experience proved a vaccination against writer's block. "When I had the newspaper, I had to come up with 12 or 15 stories a week regardless of whether there was anything to write about. Someone would call me up and say, "My kid just caught a big fish, come over and take a picture of it." So you'd go take a picture of the fish and then interview the kid. What do you ask a kid who caught a big fish? "What kind of bait were you using? Where'd you catch it? What time of day was it?" I learned you could always write. You just couldn't be too perfectionistic about it."
But the artistry of her work, the lines that take the reader's breath away, were hard-won. "I could always tell a story," she said, "but I needed to learn the poetics of the literary craft." She found her mentor in the writer Kate Braverman, under whom she learned to work until she found the right word, the right sound.
Poetry plays a great part in her writing of prose fiction. "I always read poetry before I write, to sensitize me to the rhythms and music of language. Their startling originality is a challenge. I like Dylan Thomas, Eliot, Sexton. There are parts of White Oleander which use cadences of Pound--whatever you think of Pound, there's a specific music to him. I like Kate Braverman's poetry and the late Donald Rawley's. A novelist can get by on story, but the poet has nothing but the words."
When I was 7, my brother used to read Poe to me when my parents weren't around. Although such gothic classics as The Masque of the Red Death and The Telltale Heart frightened me endlessly, they also injected me with lifelong taste for the heightened moment, suspense and the music of beautiful language.
Poe in turn led me to my teenaged favorite, my great touchstone – Doestoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, which appealed both to my fascination with the extremes of the human condition and my concern with the way people form and act upon their values.
I was also drawn, inevitably, to the pantheon of Los Angeles dark classics such as Chandler's Farewell My Lovely, and Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust. Ultimately, my taste for heightened language and experience led me to Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, Virginia Woolf's The Waves and James Joyce.
But the elegance of such prose was daunting to a would-be young artist. How could I hope to ever write a sentence in a world where Faulkner had already written?
The answer was – Henry Miller. His wonderful, all-seams-showing Tropic of Cancer gave me permission to write. I realized I didn't have to write perfectly to get something on paper. I could start with feeling, with perspective and a joy in description, and see where they led.
Anais Nin's famous Diaries, which delineated the wonderfully romantic life to which a woman author could aspire, also encouraged my decision to write.
Having made my choice for the literary life, I plunged back into Los Angeles fiction. I was successively captivated by Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays, Kate Braverman's Lithium For Medea (she would later become my teacher), and John Fante's Ask the Dust. These authors whetted my desire to create a literary Los Angeles of my own.
In the last several years, the twin pillars of my reading, the writers to whom I return again and again in my search for a unique language and perspective are Lawrence Durrell and his expansive, sensually rich Alexandria Quartet and Malcolm Lowry's tormented, subterranean Under the Volcano.
Contemporary writers who cast their spell on me are Robert Stone (Dog Soldiers), Robert Olen Butler (They Whisper), Melanie Rae Thon (First, Body) and Ntozake Shange (For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf). I continue to search out wonderful Los Angeles writing such as Donald Rawley's Slow Dance on the Fault Line and Les Plesko's The Last Bongo Sunset.
Always, I look for fiction that provides a double experience -- the experience of the story and the experience of the language above and beyond the story. I don't want just to be entertained. I want to be thrilled, dumbfounded. I want my breath taken away.
My fiction is often laced with references to my own favorite books, and I hope some friends will follow up on a lead or two!
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The questions that follow are intended to enhance your, or your group's, reading of Janet Fitch's White Oleander .
- Describe the relationship between Astrid and Ingrid early in the book. Why was Astrid fearful her mother would "fly away" if she mentioned she would have enjoyed having a father, summer camp, a Y program, or summer school?
- Astrid said "My mother was not the least bit curious about me." (p. 10) How do you think that made this twelve year-old feel? What do you think that does to a child to come to that realization?
- Why does Astrid express herself through her paintings and drawings versus words? Discuss the symbolism of the wildfires and Astrid's coming of age, her desires, and her feelings?
- Compare the characteristics of the white oleander to Ingrid. Then draw a comparison to the type of mother she was, and the type of prisoner she was. Can you compare any characteristics of the white oleander to Astrid?
- Ingrid said in a passage "Isn't it funny, I'm enjoying my hatred so much more than I ever enjoyed love." (p. 34) How does this come back to haunt her?
- Astrid takes a few of her mother's things before the child welfare people take her away. What is the significance of the ex-acto knife? Of the kimono? What solace or strength do they offer her?
- Although Astrid tells Paul "I don't let anyone touch me" (p.265) discuss how Claire touched her. Did others touch her as well? What is it about her experiences with people that make her feel this way? Discuss the powerful ways in which Astrid touched other people.
- Why would Astrid choose Rena as her new foster mother versus Bill and Ann Greenway? Was she in some way trying to punish herself? Why did she feel she deserved Rena?
- Discuss the various letters from mother to daughter, especially the one on p. 303. At what point did Astrid start to pull away from her mother emotionally? At what point was she snapped back?
- Referring to her relationship with Ray, Astrid said "I was the snake in the garden." (p.93) How does this phrase relate to Marvel, Claire and Rena?
- Why does Astrid wait several hours before alerting Ron to Claire's death? What in Astrid died at the same time?
- Discuss Astrid's view of men. How does Ray compare to Ron? Does she blame men for the bad things that happen to women? Are women merely pawns in a man's world? How does she rise above this?
- Why do you think Astrid always found herself in the position of caregiver to Starr's children, Marvel's children, and Claire when she was so deeply in need of care herself?
- Life presents us with important lessons to be learned. What was the ultimate life lesson Astrid learned in her teenage journey? Why would she consider, and desire, a new life with her mother, yet not return to her in the end?
"This is what you're after when you're browsing the shelves for something good to read. White Oleander is a siren song of a novel, seducing the reader with its story, its language, and, perhaps most of all, with its utterly believable (and remarkably diverse!) characters. The narrator is particularly memorable-there were times she made me want to cheer and weep simultaneously. Finishing this book made me feel gratefully bereft, and I look forward to Janet Fitch's next work."
— Elizabeth Berg, author of Durable Goods and Range of Motion
"Fitch displays remarkabale artistic and psychological maturity throughout, skillfully making use of metaphors (like the beautifully poisonous oleander, Ingrid's signature flower) to illuminate her central theme: the longing for order and connection in a world where even the most intimate bonds can be broken in an instant."
— Kirkus Reviews
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1. How did this book touch your life? Can you relate to it on any level? What do you believe is the message the author is trying to convey to the reader?
2. Describe the character development in White Oleander. How does Janet Fitch use language and imagery to bring the characters to life?
3. In your opinion, is the book entertaining? Explain why or why not.
4. What did you learn from this book? Was it educational in any way?
5. In conclusion, summarize your reading experience with White Oleander. What grade would you give this novel?
6. If you enjoyed this book, what other books would you recommend to fellow readers?
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