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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 915

Author: Christina Meldrum

First published: 2008

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Realism

Time of plot: 2003–7

Locale: Maine

Principal characters

Aslaug, a fifteen-year-old girl raised in isolation by her mother

Maren, her abusive, plant-gathering mother

Sara, her older sister, a Pentecostal preacher

Sanne , Sara's...

(The entire section contains 915 words.)

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Author: Christina Meldrum

First published: 2008

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Realism

Time of plot: 2003–7

Locale: Maine

Principal characters

Aslaug, a fifteen-year-old girl raised in isolation by her mother

Maren, her abusive, plant-gathering mother

Sara, her older sister, a Pentecostal preacher

Sanne, Sara's rebellious daughter

Rune,Sara's son and Sanne's younger brother

The Story

In Christina Meldrum's debut novel, Madapple, a fifteen-year-old girl named Aslaug grows up in an isolated farmhouse with her mother, Maren. The women forage for food, and gather local herbs and plants to make medicine and candles—they have no electricity. Maren covers the windows with heavy quilts and teaches Aslaug about botany and Celtic myths. Aslaug has never spoken to a man other than her nosy neighbor, Mr. Grumset; she has never gone to school or seen her own face in a mirror. When the book begins, Aslaug and Maren are gathering plants. It is clear that Maren is very ill, and Aslaug knows, though Maren does not say it, that her mother is looking for jimsonweed, also known as madapple, a poisonous plant with narcotic properties. Aslaug finds some and the two go home.

That night, Maren dies, and in the morning, Aslaug attempts to bury her in the yard. Mr. Grumset calls the police, setting in motion the book's winding plot. Alternating chapters between Aslaug's point of view and a courtroom interrogation four years later, Meldrum weaves a tale of myth and murder. Early on, the reader understands that Aslaug stands accused of murdering her mother, and later, two other women, after setting fire to a church, but the circumstances that led to this situation take longer to unfold.

After her mother's death, the underage Aslaug is placed in the care of a social worker, but she escapes into town, finding—through methods made believable by Meldrum—her aunt, Sara, Maren's sister. Sara is a Pentecostal preacher. She lives in a converted monastery with her adult daughter, Sanne, and her teenage son, Rune. Feeling intense remorse about her sister, Sara invites Aslaug to live with them. Aslaug has difficulty adjusting to modern life, and develops an infatuation with Rune. Sanne, who smokes pot and dyes her hair, takes an intense interest in her new cousin. Sanne became obsessed with her Aunt Maren, who studied mythology, to rebel against her religious mother, and she is convinced that Aslaug, like Jesus, was a virgin birth. This was always what Maren said, though Sara believes her husband had an affair with Maren, making Sanne, Rune, and Aslaug half-siblings.

The idea of the virgin birth seems ridiculous until Aslaug discovers that she is pregnant. As the reader is well aware, Aslaug has never slept with a man, and Aslaug herself is unsure how it could have happened. Confused, Aslaug accuses Rune of rape. Sara and Sanne, in retaliation, hold her hostage. The baby, whom Sanne calls Sophie but Aslaug calls Phalia, is born. Sanne and Sara, convinced the child is a prophet, insist that she be raised at the church. Two years pass, and then Rune, concerned for the child's well-being, runs away with her. Distraught, Sanne and Sara overdose on jimsonweed and die.

Aslaug sets fire to the church, and is accused of murdering her aunt and cousin. Rune appears at the trial to exonerate her. The book ends with Aslaug and Phalia living in the house Aslaug and Maren once shared.

Critical Evaluation

Madapple was critically lauded when it was published in 2008, and was a finalist for the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) William C. Morris Debut Award in 2009. The novel is tightly plotted, but also rich with detail and imagery related to botany, mythology, and religion. Many of Aslaug's chapters are named after plants, and the properties of the titular plant, and sometimes its sacred or believed ancient meaning, figure into that segment of the story. For example, Sanne feeds Aslaug partridgeberry, or two-eyed berry, to induce labor. The plant serves its purpose, but Aslaug also invokes the image of the berry itself, and its two "eyes," to describe the sensations of giving birth and being a new mother. One of the berry's eyes can see and the other cannot; one of the berry's eyes can remember (the pain of the birth, the instinct of nursing) and the other cannot, she reckons.

Meldrum describes the qualities of these plants in a mystical tone, creating an atmosphere of possibility that makes strange events—the virgin birth, for example—seem entirely plausible. Madapple also serves as a discourse on religion and belief. Sanne, the primary theologian and scholar of the novel after Maren's death, engages in long discussions with Aslaug about Christianity and ancient, pagan religions. She argues that details about Jesus's birth and life incorporate aspects of other, older stories. The Greek god Dionysus, she tells Aslaug, turned water into wine, and Attis, a Phrygo-Roman god, was crucified and resurrected. Unlike the central questions of the plot, there are no answers to the mythical quandaries raised in the novel, but Meldrum uses these ideas to encourage the reader to view the real world in a different way. Just as the plants have unusual but tangible qualities and effects on humans, Meldrum suggests the interconnectedness of all things—stories, people, and the earth.

Further Reading

  • Review of Madapple, by Christina Meldrum. Kirkus, 1 May 2008, www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/christina-meldrum/madapple. Accessed 24 Mar. 2017.
  • Review of Madapple, by Christina Meldrum. Publishers Weekly, 1 May 2008, www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-375-85176-6. Accessed 24 Mar. 2017.
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