Tuesday, February 05, 2002

White Oleander by Janet Fitch

I want to talk to you this morning about a beautiful but also very disturbing book. The title of the book is White Oleander, and its author is Janet Fitch. The book is disturbing because it is about a young girl who goes through a series of foster homes and is exposed to the horrors and dangers of the world so early; she is denied any sort of genuine childhood, denied any sort of home. But in spite of how awful her various situations are, the writing is beautiful beyond description. I know almost nothing about this writer, but I suspect that she must either be a painter herself or that she has lived around someone who painted as a way to talk back to the world. The painterly quality of the writing is at times so achingly beautiful that the reader almost forgets the bleakness of the situations being described. Indeed, some of my reader friends found the language too beautiful, insisting that the author’s absorption with word pictures, her intensely careful painting of words on paper interfered with the stark realities being described, even with the covert message of the book. Perhaps they are right in their criticisms, but for me, a hopelessly inept artist who is mesmerized by those who can capture the world in images, this is simply beautiful writing.

This is, like so many books that capture my attention, a first novel. The young Danish girl described in it is the daughter of a talented and beautiful but icy and self absorbed mother who prefers poetry and music to men and who dismisses all of her daughter’s queries about the sperm donor responsible for her birth. When she asks about her father, she is told that she has no father, that fathers are irrelevant. The reader meets this young girl, Astrid, when she is twelve years old, living with her mother, Ingrid, in southern California. The Santa Anas are blowing, furnace like, bringing in the thick smell of the poisonous oleanders. Ingrid, the mother, seems to have it right; men are worse than unnecessary; Astrid and she can do very well without them. The young girl loves to look at her white-blond and beautiful mother, to be included in her powerful aura, to hear her poetry, hear her tell of the many places in the world they have lived. But when one of the men who chases after Ingrid will not be shrugged off, continues to pursue, to demand to be noticed, Ingrid finally relents, and for a short time, Astrid has a man, a sort of father in her life, and sees her mother soften some, sees her melt, give in.

I don’t intend to tell you much about the plot in this complex and intricate novel, indeed I can’t betray the ending, for I have not yet quite finished it. But I am not giving away much in telling you that this brief period of happiness, a mom, a surrogate dad, and happy child does not last long. Just as Ingrid has always warned her, men are not to be trusted, not to be indulged, not to be counted on or lived with. The charming Barry who has melted the ice queen has no inkling of just what he has found, what he has uncovered. When he tries to leave this woman behind (as he has done with all the women he has ever known), he discovers that he has unwittingly made a lifetime commitment.

Without saying too much, let me say that Ingrid is soon in prison and Astrid is in the first of many foster placements. The series of events and placements that follow are almost incredibly awful. Indeed, if we did not know from reading the news that just such horrors actually occur, we would not find the series of events credible. I found myself supposing that this must be an autobiographical novel. Why would anyone bother to fabricate such an awful train of events? In fact, I began to think that I could not forgive the author if the book were not, for the most part, autobiographical. I could understand her having to tell her own story, but I could not understand why she would construct it simply as a way of writing a story.

With the bit of research I have done, it appears that the novel is not autobiographical, but it is equally obvious that the writer knows a lot about foster homes and about what so often happens to children once they become wards of the state. She is not telling us this story just for kicks. I have no way of knowing what instigated the author’s search into abandoned children, but it is obvious that once she began, she felt she had to tell us what she uncovered. I suspect that the life described as Astrid’s is, in fact, pieced together from the real lived-lives of several different children. But neither is this simply a fictionalized expose of what gets called children services (though it certainly is intended at least in part as a wake-up call, a call to action). The twelve year old child whom we meet in the opening pages of the novel and follow through her tortured life in junior high and then high school has much to tell us of the world. Almost as beautiful as her imprisoned mother, Astrid comes to see what a curse her beauty is in a world controlled by men. In one confrontation with a young boy in a detention center, who, like Astrid, cannot help but express his relationship with the world in the form of visual art, the boy tries to tell her how beautiful she is. When she explains that what he sees as her beauty hurts her more than it helps her, he at first refuses to understand. Thinking he has been cursed always with ugliness (though really it is only the bad skin of adolescence), he continues to insist that Astrid secretly must welcome her beauty. Let me have Astrid speak for herself.
“It doesn’t mean anything. Only to other people.”

“You say that like it’s nothing.”

“It is.” What was beauty unless you intended to use it, like a hammer, or a key? It was just something for other people to use and admire, or envy, or despise. To nail their dreams onto like a picture hanger on a blank wall. And so many girls saying, use me, dream me.

“You’ve never been ugly.” replies the boy, and talks of how hurtful it is to be rejected, to never be touched or allowed to touch. As if to make his point, he asks Astrid if she would allow him to touch. Her reply:

“I don’t let anyone touch me.”

“Why not?”

Why not? Because I was tired of men. Hanging in doorways, standing too close, their smell of beer or fifteen-year-old whisky ... men who made you love them and then changed their minds. Forests of boys, their ragged shrubs full of eyes following you, grabbing your breasts, waving their money, eyes already knocking you down, taking what they felt was theirs.
I wouldn’t want potential readers to think that this book is unremittingly sad or bitter. In fact, the beauty of the description is almost overwhelming, and there are moments of ease, even of happiness for this girl. There are a few women who actually see her, who care about her rather than simply using her for their own gains. And somehow even the sad and awful parts seem to instruct.

All in all, this is a good book, maybe even a great one. It is neither short nor easy to read. Read it when you are strong and when you have time.

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