“I was ashamed of the idea that I could escape her, even of wanting to.”
I watched White Oleander almost religiously in high school so I thought I was prepared for the book—I was mistaken. As is the case with any book-to-film adaptation, there are many differences between the mediums and large chunks of the book that are lost. The book delves deeper into the mother-daughter relationship between Ingrid and Astrid, as well as the teenager's experience living in foster homes.
On the surface White Oleander is a coming-of-age story that explores motherhood as seen through the eyes of Astrid as she navigates teenhood in a string of foster homes. Within these homes she has a conveyor belt of mothers throughout her youth—all of whom expose her to a different environment and experiences. She comes to learn about herself and her strength, as well as her mother. As I read it, it was like I was discovering the story of Ingrid and Astrid all over again. It reads like a collection of poems, one seamlessly weaving into the next. I was highlighting so many passages until I realized I would just end up highlighting everything.
An important aspect of this novel is Ingrid’s controlling love, her hold on her daughter and just how far reaching that love and control can be.
It’s the kind of book that as a daughter made me appreciate the relationship I had with my own mother, her love for me, and everything she sacrificed. Throughout the book I felt like Ingrid could have done better, done more for her daughter. She failed her daughter with her actions —such as committing a crime and by putting her needs before what Astrid deserved and needed. It was hard for me to read as a daughter. Other themes that are explored throughout the book are loss and self discovery. Astrid lives many different lives as the result of constantly being moved from foster home to foster home. It is within these homes that she comes to discover who she is as a separate individual from her mother.
“Her beauty was like the edge of a very sharp knife.”
At the start, Astrid and Ingrid’s relationship seems unshakable. It’s just the two of them and has been since Astrid was a baby. She looks up to her mother and sees her as this otherworldly creature—a goddess. She believes her mother is the center of the universe and everyone else rotates around her, including Astrid herself. They live within the walls of the world they’ve created and never let anyone else in. But a chance meeting with a poet creates a shift that sets the stage for the rest of the book. For the first time Ingrid has allowed someone to set foot in their world and starts to imagine what it would be like to make room for someone else. She gets swept in the relationship and breaks the rules she has lived by and has taught Astrid—her actions beginning to contradict everything that she has ever taught and shown her. I saw this as being the moment that the facade starts to crack and the outside world starts to seep in. To me, Ingrid is still a young woman just looking for love. She presents herself as a woman who does not need anyone else—least of all a man, but she’s only human so she craves affection and comfort like anyone else.
When I started reading the book, I was reminded of the initial dislike I had towards Ingrid as a mother from watching the film. The ways in which she manipulates Astrid and leads her to believe that no one else in the world matters and that they were superior to everyone else felt so isolating for a young girl. If Ingrid had spoke to her about life and relationships—both platonic and intimate—she would not seek out intimacy and affection from people she shouldn’t have. When Astrid entered her first foster home at age 12, she interacts for an extended amount of time with someone other than her mother. Her behavior is a direct result of being kept from others and having her mother as the sole example of a woman.
“I know what you are learning to endure. There is nothing to be done. Make sure nothing is wasted. Take notes. Remember it all, every insult, every tear. Tattoo it on the inside of your mind.”
Most of the book deals with Astrid’s teenage years as she navigates being shuffled through several foster homes. As everyone knows, foster homes can either be great or be a place where you just bide your time until you are 18—either experience is life changing. In each home, her behavior reminded me of her mother. I found this to be interesting and not at all shocking given that Ingrid held on to her so tightly and we inherit personality traits from our parents. Astrid’s behavior in the first few foster homes demonstrates the control that Ingrid wields over her, even from prison—she was biding her time, believing her mother when she would say she’d be back in no time. At so many turns throughout the book—particularly early on, I wished that she would start to pull away, become her own person. She seemed to hold out so much hope for her mothers return even though it was so obvious she was better off without her.
“She couldn’t stand that. Not that she ever paid attention to me when she had the chance, but when someone else did, she couldn’t stand it.”
Ingrid has spent all of Astrid’s life manipulating her and taking advantage of her and the bond they share as mother and daughter. No matter how long we go without having a relationship with our mothers, we still hold a place in our hearts for them and we feel this pull towards them. She exploits the love and indestructible loyalty Astrid holds for her as a daughter. To me it seems as if she refuses to let her go as she is the only audience who can’t and won’t leave. She needs Astrid to always sit in her shadows. At the end of the day, Ingrid is a human being who suffers from abandonment issues and does not want to be left alone, something that stems from her previous relationships. This is something that we can all relate to, that feeling of being alone or abandoned. It’s not something anyone enjoys and it’s something that actually made me feel sympathy towards Ingrid and erased some of that initial dislike.
After following along as Astrid grew up and became disillusioned with her mother and life in general, I just wanted her to have even a smidge of happiness or closure. As Astrid prepares to embark on the next chapter of her life, she attempts one last time to have her mother be honest with her. It is in this one unselfish moment that she becomes free from her mother. Just as Ingrid found herself imprisoned, Astrid was imprisoned in her mother’s web. As I read the last few pages of the book, I felt relief for her. I felt that she could finally move away from her childhood, but the truth is it’s something she will carry with her for the rest of her life, as we all do. Her mother’s actions will forever be part of who she is unfortunately, but by finally being honest with her, Ingrid has let her go.
By Janet Fitch
446 pages. 1999.