Skip to main content

Historical Reading of White Oleander

Stephanie Hartley

Janet Fitch was born in 1955 in Los Angeles. Not only had she lived there for the entirety of her life when she wrote White Oleander, but as two previous generations of her family lived in the city she clearly has an expansive and personal knowledge of it which allows her to inject a level of geographical accuracy into the novel which not only heightens its interest for local readers, but also for those worldwide for whom the accuracy gives the text a level of authenticity. As a child she had a difficult relationship with her mother, whom she believes lacked the necessary skills for motherhood (there appears to be a slight insertion of her own history into the text on this theme). She studied history for a period in Keele University in England, having been inspired by the concept of stories within history. However, she eventually realised at the age of 21 that she did not want to merely read stories; she wanted to write them, and thus began her journey as a writer.
Fitch finally finished writing White Oleander in 1999. This was a turbulent time in Los Angeles as certain parts of America, including here, had undergone a rapid economic decline and resurgence within just over a decade. The tension at this time was further heightened by the fact that the Cold War finished only 8 years earlier, whilst Fitch was in the process of creating a text; the uneasiness of American citizens was not immediately extinguished by this time, as they had suffered over thirty years of fear and anxiety. Moreover, perhaps the most significant cause for anxiety for the citizens of Los Angeles during this time however was the 1992 riots and their aftermath. They commenced after a video of a black man being beaten by a group of white policemen was filmed and realised to the public and the trial saw the all-white jury acquit the men of this crime; the riots broke out within hours. People lived in fear for their lives, and some did not make it. Not only were there violent, sporadic killings, but over $1 Billion worth of damage was caused, largely through arson. This rupture in the quotidian social climate meant that life has not been the same in Los Angeles since. These factors which induced high levels of anxiety in citizens are reflected in the book: Astrid constantly fears for something; Ingrid is unsettled and eventually finds happiness in the structure of prison; the instability of the various domestic lives of the foster homes, particularly Claire’s depression and anxiety issues.
The novel also reflects movements in the world as a whole at the time in which it was written as the 1990s in the Western world in particular was recognised as being a time in which the growth of multiculturalism was seen. This is seen through the variety of races which Astrid encounters on her journey through life and the way in which Fitch allows them to each have their own identities within their race. However, as capitalist markets in the Western world boomed so did racial and class tension, which is again explored in the text. This was a time in which the world saw the rise of Third Wave feminisms, which not only differ from the second wave in that this was more racially motivated than before, but it also saw the rise of antifeminisms, some key ideas of which are included in the text.