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White Oleander (novel)  
Author Janet Fitch
Country United States
Language English
Series JADE
Genre(s) Bildungsroman novel
Publisher Little, Brown and Co.
Publication date 1999
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
Pages 446 pp
ISBN 0-316-28526-9
OCLC Number 40460011
Dewey Decimal 813/.54 21
LC Classification PS3556.I8155 W47 1999

White Oleander is a 1999 novel by American author Janet Fitch. It is a coming-of-age story about a child (Astrid) who is separated from her mother (Ingrid) and placed in a series of foster homes. The book was a selection by Oprah's Book Club in May 1999 and became a 2002 film.


Plot summary

When the book opens, Astrid Magnussen is a twelve year old girl living in Los Angeles, California. She and her mother, Ingrid Magnussen, a famous poet, live a solitary life with little outside influence. Ingrid left her husband, Klaus Anders, before Astrid was old enough to remember him and forbade him to contact Astrid after they left. Astrid relies solely on Ingrid and has trouble fitting in at school. However, Ingrid is self-centered, cold-hearted and eccentric. She lives by a set of her own rules and shows little interest in Astrid, sometimes seeming to forget she has a daughter at all. As a result, Astrid fears abandonment above all else.

Ingrid begins dating a man named Barry Kolker. At first Ingrid is disgusted by his vulgarity and finds him repulsive. Barry continues to woo her and Astrid watches her mother break every self-imposed rule as she becomes more involved with him. Eventually he's revealed as a womanizer, leaving Ingrid shattered and enraged. Numerous attempts at reconciliation leave Ingrid more and more humiliated and culminate with her breaking into Barry's house and spreading a mixture of DMSO, an arthritis drug, and oleander sap all over the surfaces of Barry's home. The DMSO allows the oleander poison to be absorbed into skin, ostensibly killing Barry. She is eventually charged with his murder and sentenced to life in prison. She promises her daughter that she will come back, but Astrid is sent to a series of foster homes.

The first foster family is that of Starr, a former stripper, drug addict, and alcoholic. She has two children of her own, as well as two other foster children. Starr takes in foster children because her own children were in foster care at one time due to her addictions. Despite the fact that he is nearly old enough to be her father, Astrid has an affair with Starr's boyfriend, Ray. As Ray becomes more and more disinterested in Starr, she relapses. One night, after a loud, drunken argument with Ray over his relationship with Astrid, Starr shoots Astrid with a .38. Astrid suffers some broken bones and stitches from the gunshots and is hospitalized for a few weeks.

Her next home is with the Turlocks. Ed and Marvel are the parents of two small children. In their home, Astrid becomes an unpaid babysitter. Astrid befriends the Turlocks' next-door neighbor, a beautiful African-American woman named Olivia Johnstone. Astrid admires Olivia's beauty, wealth and hedonistic lifestyle. Olivia is a prostitute by profession and is hated by the Turlock family. After befriending Olivia, Astrid begins using drugs and performing oral sex on a boy in a park in exchange for some pot. Olivia teaches Astrid about all of the finer things in life. On her fifteenth birthday, Astrid goes for a walk, and is bitten by a pack of dogs, leaving scars on her arms and face. During the winter break, Astrid is expelled from the Turlock household after accidentally falling asleep at Olivia's house one night.

Next, Astrid is sent to the home of a Hispanic woman named Amelia Ramos. Amelia is an interior designer, originally from Argentina, and lives in Hollywood, with a huge, elegant house. Amelia has a son, but he has AIDS and the girls do not see him much. The other foster girls in the house are all Latino. All the girls in Amelia's household, however, are treated the same in that they are fed dinner, but Amelia keeps a lock on her fridge so the girls starve in the mornings. Astrid starves to the point that she stops menstruating. She resorts to eating unfinished lunches from the garbage at school. Astrid eventually gets a new caseworker who finds her a new placement.

Astrid is taken in by a former actress named Claire Richards, and her husband, Ron. Claire does everything she can to ensure Astrid's comfort. For once, Astrid is doing well in school and pursuing art. Astrid continues corresponding with her mother in prison, but Astrid becomes increasingly bitter towards Ingrid. Claire suspects that Ron is having an affair, and Astrid watches their fights worsen as Ron makes constant trips away from home. After New Years, Claire commits suicide by overdosing. By this point, Astrid is 17.

Astrid is then placed in MacLaren Children's Center (known as Mac), which is known as a final resort for foster kids without a placement. Astrid meets a boy named Paul Trout, and they bond through the shared experience of living in foster care.

Astrid's final home is with Russian immigrant Rena Grushenka. She intentionally chooses Rena over better prospective foster parents because she is devastated by Claire's death, and does not want to become part of a nuclear family. Astrid is afraid it would be too easy to forget the pain she has gone through. At Rena's, she lives with two other teenage girls named Niki and a pregnant girl named Yvonne. Astrid becomes very close friends with Niki and Yvonne and has sex with Rena's boyfriend Sergei, one night after getting high on acid with Niki, Astrid begins to have memories of a woman named Annie.

Meanwhile, Ingrid has begun to build up a following of fans and admirers from prison, who all believe she is innocent. Ingrid and her lawyer begin to build up a case to get Ingrid released from prison. However, their case depends on Astrid — if she testifies that Ingrid did not murder Barry, Ingrid could probably get out, but if she testifies the truth, Ingrid could not win her case. Astrid realizes that she is in a position of power over her mother, and tells her that unless she answers some of her questions, she will testify against her. Astrid asks Ingrid about her father and Barry and then Annie, Ingrid is shattered to learn that Astrid remembers Annie at all, and tells Astrid that Annie was a babysitter who Ingrid left Astrid with for over a year, making Astrid realise why she fears abandonment from her mother. Astrid lets Ingrid know how damaged she is because of what Ingrid did to her, even going as far as becoming completely gothic, Astrid gives Ingrid a choice, to have her testify or to have her return to the person her mother knew her as. Astrid ends up not testifying in the case.

Two years later, Astrid is 20 years old and living with Paul in a run down flat in Berlin, Germany. Astrid has spent a lot of her time and effort into buying suitcases and making them into artwork detailing the journey Astrid has taken from her mothers imprisonment to her life with Rena. One afternoon Paul brings home a newspaper article reporting Ingrid's release from prison after winning her appeals trial. Astrid acknowledges the power that her mother still has over her and even reveals her secret dream of going back to California. She never fulfills this dream, knowing that too much has happened and she would never fit into the daughter mold her mother wants from her. She also realizes that if she returns to California, she must abandon Paul, leaving him much like she has been abandoned so many times before. She embraces the life she has lived, the past that has made her who she is and accepts her mother's love, but continues to live the life she leads.

External links

Simple English

White Oleander is a 1999 novel by Janet Finch. It was later made into a movie in 2002 titled White Oleander.


Ingrid is a poet who falls in love with a man named Barry Kolker. However he is not loyal to her and sees other women. Ingrid kills him by going to Mexico and buying a drug. She then smears it over all of the surfaces. Barry touches these surfaces, the poison gets in his body, and he dies. She goes to jail and is later found guilty for killing him and goes to prison for a long time. Her daughter, Astrid, is taken to a series of foster homes.

Her first foster home is someone named Starr, who has a two children, a teenager named Carolee and a young boy named David. During this home, she falls in love with Starr's husband. She later has an affair by sleeping with him. During a fight, Carolee runs away from home. An angry Starr shoots Astrid in the arm after an argument with her husband.

Her second home is with a woman named Amelia. Amelia has many girls at her house. She has them only to get money (she calls it "easy money") and only feeds them at dinnertime, locking the fridge during the rest of the day. All the girls are hungry all of the time. She eventually gets out of it by talking to a foster worker.

For a brief time, she is put in a place called "Mac," which houses hundreds of children. During this time, she gets into a fight with a bunch of other girls. She cuts her hair off and threatens the other girls, saying that she will slit their throats in their sleep if they attack her again. She also meets a boy named Paul Trout here, who she likes a lot.

Her third foster home is with a woman named Claire Richards. She is very lonely since her husband Ron is always out on business trips. Astrid likes her a lot and how she always is nice and happy towards her. When Claire and Astrid visit Ingrid, however, Ingrid tells Claire that Ron is cheating on her. Astrid warns her mother not to destroy this home, but Ingrid smiles and says that she would rather have her at the worst foster home ever over Claire. Afterwards, Claire fights with Mark and later kills herself by taking a lot of pills at.

Astrid is put in a fourth home. She is very upset and thinks that her mom caused Claire to kill herself. She chooses a home with a Russian mother named Rena, knowing that Rena will not love her like Claire did because she does not want to see this happen again. This new mother has her sell her nice clothes. Astrid dyes her own hair and starts wearing black clothing. When Ingrid meets Astrid again, she is shocked at how Astrid has turned herself.

During this time, there is a movement to free Ingrid. They believe the original decision of "guilty" of killing Barry was wrong and want a new trial. If Astrid lies and agrees to Ingrid's version of the story, Ingrid will be likely be freed. But if she tells the truth, Ingrid will be put in jail again. Astrid uses this new power to force Ingrid to tell her about her father. Ingrid says that all she wanted Astrid to be was strong, but that she has turned into a nuclear site, the wrong kind of strong. She says that she wants Astrid to be back the way she used to be. Astrid says she will only come back if her mother releases her – does not call her as a witness. Ingrid agrees. Ingrid is then put on trial again and found not guilty.

The novel ends with Astrid, living with her new boyfriend Paul in East Berlin. She is reading the newspaper and finds out about how her mother was found not guilty. Astrid is putting together a series of suitcases that stand for all of her experiences through foster homes.

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