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Madapple    by Christina Meldrum order for
by Christina Meldrum
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Knopf, 2008 (2008)
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* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Aslaug Hellig grew up in rural Maine, homeschooled in isolation by her harsh, controlling mother, steeped in languages, herbal lore, philosophy and religious history, but ignorant of the basics of modern life - and of her own appearance. Her narrative opens on her mother's death, and Aslaug's perspective on events alternates with court proceedings in which the young woman is arrested - on two different occasions - for murder.

The mystery of how those charges came to be laid - and what actually happened both times - pulls the reader's interest through this often strange tale. The book opens on the fifteen-year-old mother, Maren, telling her sister Sara who is visiting from Denmark, that she's pregnant though she's 'never had a lover.' Sara, whose marriage is ending, settles in Bethan, Maine with her children, Susanne (Sanne) and Rune. The story then fast forwards two decades to show Maren (dying of cancer) and her daughter Aslaug gathering herbs, in particular 'rank-smelling, rash-causing, poisonous jimsonweed', sometimes called Madapple, which Maren uses to escape her pain. Jimsonweed plays a key role all through the novel.

A neighbor's observation of Aslaug's attempt to bury her mother leads to her first arrest. Released after the discovery of Maren's cancer, Aslaug flees a social worker's plans for her and - almost by serendipity - finds her aunt and cousins at the Charisma Pentecostal Church, where Sara is Pastor. Aslaug stays with them and is gradually absorbed into their lives and obsessions. It's a tale of innocence and incestuous love, herbs that heal and those that poison, and a familial fascination with the possibility of a virgin birth. Another pregnancy is the catalyst for events that lead up to Aslaug's trial for arson and murder.

Madapple is a rather dark, and most unusual coming of age story, that I'd recommend for older teens. Along the way, Aslaug - and also readers - learn 'that understanding a sequence of events, even down to the most minute detail, does not imply an understanding as to why those events took place.'

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