Excerpt from White Oleander by Janet Fitch, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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White Oleander

By Janet Fitch

White Oleander
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  • Hardcover: May 1999,
    390 pages.
    Paperback: May 2000,
    400 pages.

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The Santa Anas blew in hot from the desert, shriveling the last of the spring grass into whiskers of pale straw. Only the oleanders thrived, their delicate poisonous blooms, their dagger green leaves. We could not sleep in the hot dry nights, my mother and I. I woke up at midnight to find her bed empty. I climbed to the roof and easily spotted her blond hair like a white flame in the light of the three-quarter moon.

"Oleander time," she said. "Lovers who kill each other now will blame it on the wind." She held up her large hand and spread the fingers, let the wind trace itself through. My mother was not herself in the time of the Santa Anas. I was twelve years old and I was afraid for her. I wished things were back the way they had been, that Barry was here, that the wind would stop blowing.

"You should get some sleep," I offered.

"I never sleep," she said.

I sat next to her, and we stared out at the city that hummed and glittered like a computer chip deep in some unknowable machine, holding its secret like a poker hand. The edge of her white kimono flapped open in the wind and I could see her breast, low and full. Her beauty was like the edge of a very sharp knife.

I rested my head on her leg. She smelled like violets. "We are the wands," she said. "We strive for beauty and balance, the sensual over the sentimental."

"The wands," I repeated. I wanted her to know I was listening. Our tarot suit, the wands. She used to lay out the cards for me, explain the suits: wands and coins, cups and swords, but she had stopped reading them. She didn't want to know the future anymore.

"We received our coloring from Norsemen," she said. "Hairy savages who hacked their gods to pieces and hung the flesh from trees. We are the ones who sacked Rome. Fear only feeble old age and death in bed. Don't forget who you are."

"I promise," I said.

Down below us in the streets of Hollywood, sirens whined and sawed along my nerves. In the Santa Anas, eucalyptus trees burst into flames like giant candles, oilfat chaparral hillsides went up in a rush, flushing starved coyotes and deer down onto Franklin Avenue.

She lifted her face to the singed moon, bathing in its glowering beams. "Raven's-eye moon."

"Ritz cracker moon," I murmured, my head on her knee.

She softly stroked my hair. "It's a traitor's moon."

In the spring this wound had been unimaginable, this madness, but it had lain before us, undetectable as a land mine. We didn't even know the name Barry Kolker then.

Barry. When he appeared, he was so small. Smaller than a comma, insignificant as a cough. Someone she met at a poetry reading. It was at a wine garden in Venice. As always when she read, my mother wore white, and her hair was the color of new snow against her lightly tanned skin. She stood in the shade of a massive fig tree, its leaves like hands. I sat at the table behind stacks of books I was supposed to sell after the reading, slim books published by the Blue Shoe Press of Austin, Texas. I drew the hands of the tree and the way bees swarmed over the fallen figs, eating the sun-fermented fruit and getting drunk, trying to fly and falling back down. Her voice made me drunk — deep and sun-warmed, a hint of a foreign accent, Swedish singsong a generation removed. If you'd ever heard her, you knew the power of that hypnotic voice.

After the reading, people crowded around, gave me money to put in the cigar box, my mother signed a few books. "Ah, the writer's life," she said ironically, as they handed me the crumpled fives and ones. But she loved the readings, the way she loved long evenings with writer friends trashing more famous poets over a drink and a joint, and hated them, the way she hated the lousy job she had at Cinema Scene magazine, where she pasted up the copy of other writers paid fifty cents a word to bleed their shameless cliches, their stock nouns and slack verbs, while my mother could agonize for hours over whether to write an or the.

© 1999 by Janet Fitch. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Little,Brown & Co.

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