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Geography and Space in 'White Oleander'

Ingrid’s and Astrid’s home

Astrid’s story begins in the setting of the apartment she shares with her mother Ingrid on Franklin Avenue, Hollywood. One of the things that is most noticeable about the portrayal of the environment Astrid shares with her mother, is the division between the perception of Los Angeles and that of the outside world. Even in the early stages of the novel, it is obvious that Ingrid’s home and workspace are understood only as a negation of the excitement, variety and sophistication of travel. Astrid frequently recognises that her perception of the Los Angeles they inhabit is defined by a sense of monotony, “If it weren’t for me, she wouldn’t have to take jobs like this…I didn’t want to remind her that the reason she was trapped in electric bills and kid’s shoes grown too small, the reason she was clawing at the windows.” (9) These “Norsewomen” don’t really belong to the work-a-day lifestyle they have in L.A. Astrid believes her mother should be “half a planet away, floating in a turquoise sea, dancing by moonlight to the flamenco guitar,” (9). Ingrid, in particular, belongs to the world; Astrid’s perceives her mother in relation to her Scandinavian roots, her travels in South American and her fascination with Asia. The beginning episode is littered with international references regarding, places, food, clothes and music. Their life in L.A. does not have the diversity that Ingrid needs; she is full of exoticism, for example, the incense, the tarot cards and the bare interiors, but she is trapped in the monotony of their L.A. lifestyle. There is a very clear division between the freedom and excitement of foreign countries and the everyday life they experience in Franklin Avenue.

Crossroads of the World

Crossroads of the World is the site of Ingrid’s workplace which Astrid visits in the summer and is one of the places that serves to remind the reader that Ingrid does not really belong in the monotony of everyday life. There is bitter irony in that Crossroads of the World is not so much a meeting point of international culture as an antithesis of it. They are “fantasy bungalows” (16) designed in the styles from “Brother’s Grimm and Don Quixote.” They do not have an authentic sense of foreign countries, they are an reimagining of them. Moreover, this reimagining is more an expression of consumerism than an artistic imitation since Crossroads of the World, opened in 1936, was designed as an outdoor shopping mall. The international theme, designed to attract buyers makes it sound almost like a theme park. Ingrid is forced to inhabit a theme-park copy of the countries she has visited. In this way, Crossroads of the World serves to emphasise the trap Ingrid inhabits in an antithesis of the free-spirited, multi-cultural life that Astrid believes she is supposed to lead.


After her mother’s imprisonment Astrid is sent to live with Starr and her family in Tujunga. Stability is a key feature of the novel, especially the spaces concerning Starr. In the early stages of the novel we learn that Astrid feels she needs to find somewhere that she can accept her past and be rooted. While Ingrid is seduced by Barry’s exotic stories of his travels in the Orient, Astrid is seduced by his potential to be a stabilizing force. What Astrid craves is “A year like the one before it, and the next like that, one after another,” (23). Whilst the narrative gives the impression that Starr has the ability to become a stabilizing figure, the space implies otherwise. Starr’s home is a “trailer” with “so many parts added on” (45) which gives a sense of the impermanence and instability which will later be reflected in the narrative. Even the mountains outside the trailer give Astrid the feeling there is a “huge-shouldered mass moving towards [her]” (46) creating a sense of instability.

The instability of the humanised space is matched by the volatility of the landscape, another important feature of the novel. At the beginning of the novel the volatility of nature is paralleled with the volatility of Ingrid’s emotions. The Santa Anas invade the spaces and always seems to accompany trouble. Astrid notes that at the time her mother becomes set on revenge, “All [she] remembered is that the winds had started,” (24). Similarly the day Ingrid first breaks into Barry’s house coincides with a “time of year you couldn’t even go to the beach because of the toxic red tide,” (29). When Ingrid goes into depression after Barry has left her, Michael remarks that it is a “natural disaster,” (27). However, by the time we reach Starr’s house Astrid appears to have succeeded her mother and become the one whose emotions are paralleled in nature. As Astrid’s feelings for Ray increase, so does the ferocity of the weather. In the climax of the summer there are “Santa Anas like nothing…ever see before…Fire came up over the ridges and burned down the mountains a mile away,” (72). As she gets closer to Ray the volatile weather continues in the form of a deluge which “lasted without a break through Christmas,” (75). Furthermore, it cannot be a coincidence that once Astrid starts a relationship with Ray the hillsides bloom with “orange drifts of California Poppies, dotting the cracks in gas stations and parking lots with poppies and blue lupine and Indian paintbrush,” (84). The idea of the emotions of these women being reflected in nature perhaps indicates a special way in which they are linked to the land. They are descended from the “Norsemen”(4) who “hung [their] gods from trees,” (49) and the “icy winds of Sweden” (12) and “cold lakes of Norway” (32) go with them.

Ed and Marvel’s

After her awful experience with Starr, Astrid is sent to live with Ed and Marvel Turlock, in Van Nuys, who become her “first real family,” (109). Van Nuys and the Turlock’s home are perhaps more of an expression of modernism and modern society than the previous spaces because the house and its surroundings are bound in capitalism and consumerism. Van Nuys is described as a “kingdom of strip malls and boulevards,” (108) distinguishing it as an area defined by capitalism. The Turlock’s house is dominated by a “television set the size of Arizona,” (108) implying that the family are concerned with material possessions and also implying a certain level of consumer competition. This sense of consumer competition is also reflected in the Turlock’s opinion of Olivia Johnstone whose real crime, in Marvel’s eyes, is not being a prostitute but having expensive things and “Flaunting it in decent people’s faces,” (118). Olivia’s home is also defined in terms of material possessions. The first things Astrid notices are the expensive furniture and the “gold paper burnished to the quality of cork,” (124). Astrid also can’t help but notice the amount of material possessions, “Everywhere I looked, there was something more to see…” (125). Therefore, Olivia’s home further reinforces the idea that Ed and Marvel’s home, and the surrounding space is defined by consumerism and the inherent competiveness of the concept.

Ms Cardoza’s

Astrid’s third foster home, located in Hollywood and while “the last decade has brought to life the once struggling parts of the Hollywood districts” as White Oleander was first published in 1999 much of this development would not yet have happened. Like the rest of LA, the wealthy and the poor live side by side; the wealthier homes up in the Hollywood Hills, while further south east the neighbourhoods become poorer. It is not entirely clear where in Hollywood Ms Cardoza’s home is located however the description of the house and herself is oppressive in an almost colonial sense. The house is described as “dark, the windows covered with heavy curtains. The woodwork gleamed halfway up the walls” (168) and can be seen as a comparison to Ms Cardoza’s home in Argentina which is described as far lighter “a pink house with a flagstone courtyard” (169). This direct contrast between the light and dark of her home in Argentina and her home in Hollywood I think reflects a sense of foreboding about this foster home, which seems perfectly nice to start with but then becomes almost the worst home in Astrid’s eyes as it is the only house where she is persistent in asking for a new placement. The “heavy staircase, dark paintings of saints” (169) reflect the oppressive atmosphere – here Astrid is most obviously the victim of the house, in the same way that Ms Cardoza is a victim of her past – clearly she would rather have her home in the house in Argentina that she speaks of to Astrid and has pictures of on the walls, the house is almost a personification of her pain and as such affects the girls living in it.


Claire and Richard live in the Fairfax district which is in the Mid-City West area of Los Angeles. The description of the interior of the house however is a direct contrast to the oppressive feel of Ms Cardoza’s. The bathroom is described as decorated with “tiled aqua and rose, the original twenties ceramic” (183) and the light, delicacy of the colours of the house reflect Claire herself. Also you get the sense of this family’s wealth through their location and the decor – although they are not living in the wealthiest part of LA they (although this will prove not to be the case) seem more stable than any of the other families Astrid has stayed with. This feeling of stability through the gentleness of the decor and atmosphere described in the novel I think is reflective of the idea that the transient nature of modernity is almost rebelled against through the way we live, I think this very gentle, serene decor is attempt to rebel against the creeping doubt that no matter how wealthy we are we have no control, which eventually culminates in Claire’s suicide.

MacLaren Children’s Centre (Mac)

Maclaren Children’s Centre was located in El Monte, a city described as “an island in the middle of the arid San Gabriel Valley, sitting between the San Gabriel and Rio Hondo Rivers”. However Maclaren itself was shut down in 2003 after multiple questions about its efficiency and lawsuits over various alleged abuse/inability to care for the children living there. In White Oleander is is described as a relief as “the worst had happened” (261) the living conditions are described as almost prison like merely through the compartmentalising of the children living there – for example, Astrid has a bed and two drawers underneath the bed. The hallways of Mac are painted with jungles, exacerbating the feeling of being almost I think the most caged by the system Astrid has ever been – she’s allowed to see freedom and a natural environment while living in an artificial and dangerous one.


Rena’s house is described as small and messy in a neighbourhood where “the neighbours had a boat in the driveway that was bigger than their house”. Rena is Astrid’s last foster home but also in some ways the most caricatured view of modernism and modern society particularly in relation to Rena’s mercenary capitalism – their money is made by selling anything – as Rena says “workers of the world arise, got nothing to lose but Visa Card, Happy Meal and Kotex with Wings” (275). Almost as though the poorer the foster homes Astrid goes to, the more chaotic and unstable they get (in the sense that everything’s for sale, rather than the attempt at stability through decor and possessions at Claire’s, however somehow this seems more important to Astrid – she chooses to go to Rena’s over becoming part of the nuclear family offered to her when being interviewed by prospective foster parents at Mac. Rena also lives in a neighbourhood cut up by freeways to make a small island in the middle of the freeways – full of people going somewhere, epitomising how Astrid is stranded by her ‘homes’ and also in a way epitomising modernism, everyone is an island. By this point in the novel the locations can be seen as part of a kind of phoenix metaphor for Astrid, Rena’s is the last stop before she becomes who she is trying to be and moves to Berlin with Paul Trout.


Berlin is where the novel ends and it’s the only place Astrid truly chooses to live. I think the novel suggests that for Astrid – Berlin and Europe itself is an escape from the crushing, capitalist modernity that is so obvious in all her descriptions of her homes in LA. Obviously there isn’t an escape but I think as Astrid describes Berlin as “the city and I understood each other. I liked that they had left the bombed out hulk of the Kaiser Wilhelm Church as a monument to loss. Nobody had forgotten anything here. In Berlin, you had to wrestle with the past, you had to build on the ruins, inside them. It wasn’t like America, where we scraped the earth clean, thinking we could start again every time” (379). The greater wealth of history that’s visible in Berlin I think speaks to Astrid, almost as if she and the city are one and the same – they both carry the scars of their history but they are both rebuilding themselves while holding on to the past – Astrid’s final words of the novel are “ I would always know what time it was in California” and this illustrates her need to keep her past through her art.