In Janet Fitch's first novel, "White Oleander, " Astrid Magnussen, a pliant 11-year-old, loses Ingrid, her mother -- an arrogant feminist poet from Los Angeles -- when the woman gets thrown in prison for poisoning her ex-boyfriend. By the time Astrid is 18, she is hard from years of San Fernando Valley foster care: from being shot by one "mother" for stealing her seven-fingered boyfriend, from being mauled by dogs on a suburban street, from being dropped by a high-class black hooker who's taught her about the rewards of cashmere and the weaknesses of men, from being forced into servitude by a racist blue-collar hag interested only in the bottled color of her own hair, from losing the one cultured and nurturing female in her teenage life to suicide. Despite her hardness, though, Astrid -- who narrates this episodic drama -- views her life always with openness and mostly with gratitude: Had her birth mother been the only woman to raise her, she would never have learned about the varieties of women and the myriad ways they suffer.
At the center of "White Oleander" is Astrid's ever-evolving relationship with Ingrid, pursued, for the most part, through the mail. At first the girl, more visually than verbally articulate, sends her mother drawings of the people looking after her, and Ingrid responds with sound warnings against the drug addicts and drunks she finds on the pages in front of her. After a while, though, as her daughter grows to love these women, the less than maternal inmate, angry and jealous, turns away from her and toward a growing audience of young female readers in love with the figure of the captive poet. And so Astrid suffers a double loss, emotional as well as physical. This is where Fitch does her best work: She shows that children can survive gunshot wounds, dog attacks, poverty, fatherlessness and even neglect, but that losing the love of a mother threatens them with losing themselves.
It's hard to know whether the author means for her narrator to be unreliable or not. What are we supposed to think about a young woman who continues to look back with fondness on the many horrors of her childhood? Are we supposed to feel uplifted because, in spite of all the scars, she still has a heart? "White Oleander" has the feel of a book written over years in a workshop setting: Though the story doesn't quite add up -- though it remains linear and rather simple-minded -- you can appreciate the author's hard work and determination and the love of the community of women she weaves through the sentences. On occasion the book is a page-turner (it's amazing how compelling a child's misery can be), and always the characters are as real as the person who sleeps beside you. In the case of "White Oleander," though, they always leave.