A Mystery Of Science And Nature: 'Madapple'

Host Liane Hansen speaks with first-time novelist Christina Meldrum, a litigator and Harvard graduate. In Madapple, readers enter the lives of a mother and daughter, in which questions about faith, science and religion abound.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Foraging has always been an option for humans in need of food. Meadows, woods and riverbeds can provide a harvest of nuts, fruits, berries and greens if you know what to look for. The great outdoors is also full of both medicinal herbs and poisons. Christina Meldrum used both the art and science of foraging as threads in her debut novel, "Madapple."

"Madapple" is another term for jimsonweed, a poisonous plant with psychotropic characteristics. It figures heavily in the relationship between a daughter and her mother who at the beginning of the book live only on what they can forage.

Christina Meldrum joins us from the studios of WGBU in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Welcome to the program.

Ms. CHRISTINA MELDRUM (Author, "Madapple"): Thank you for having me.

HANSEN: How much did you know about botany when you began to write this book?

Ms. MELDRUM: You know, I knew very little about botany, actually. I had been a comparative religion major and I had gone to law school. And when I started writing the book, I realized that Aslaug, the protagonist, and her mother, Maren, really would need to live off the land and they needed to be very isolated from modern society. And so, I realized that Aslaug, in particular, would view the world through the lens of plants and that I would really need to be able to do that in order to get inside of her head. So I spent about a year or so, maybe even more, focusing specifically on studying the plants that were indigenous to Maine.

HANSEN: Tell us a little bit more about her mother. I mean, she strikes me as being one of these almost medieval women who is very easily dismissed by society as a - what? Quote unquote, "witch." But she also is a great believer in not only herbal medicines and so forth but some of the great legends, and, you know, her faith is tied up with her view of the earth.

Ms. MELDRUM: Aslaug's mother, Maren, is a very complicated person, and she's driven to a large degree by both her intellect and her emotional pain and physical pain. And so her behavior throughout the book is driven by those three things. She is a brilliant woman but she's experienced such trauma in her life that she feels the need to isolate herself.

She's very, very clued into the natural world and she's also very sensitive to the way that the natural world informs many of the mythologies throughout the world. And so she teaches her daughter many of these things. But she also feels a need to isolate her daughter from the world because she's been hurt by the world.

HANSEN: Aslaug, the daughter, it's kind of the story of someone who's totally lost in the real ways of the world. It's almost an archetypal story.

Ms. MELDRUM: I had studied religion, as I said, in undergrad. I was just fascinated by these repeated stories that seemed to come up again and again in mythology, and I was inspired to sort of capture that in Aslaug's story. And so she is supposed to be, in some ways, another myth.

HANSEN: Elaborate on that a little bit, about the mythical properties.

Ms. MELDRUM: Aslaug is very isolated and so I was trying to create a person who would seem sort of timeless. And so in her voice, she's not influenced by the modern world because she hasn't been exposed to the modern world. And so the way that she speaks is very much attached to the natural world , it's what she knows. And so in some ways, I wanted her to seem timeless.

HANSEN: She is someone who was accused of murdering her mother, and she goes to live with her aunt, who is a faith healer. And when you talk about the modern world, I mean, and faith, that is very much a part of the modern world. Is this the conflict that you're writing about?

Ms. MELDRUM: It certainly is part of it. I was trying to create a relatively extreme situation where she would have to enter into a world that she was entirely unfamiliar with but that would be - it would stretch her, it would strain her, it would challenge her.

HANSEN: Have you always been interested in the interworkings of religion and science?

Ms. MELDRUM: I think it was fueled largely in college but it was something that I was interested in. And I think when I came to learn that the dichotomy between science and religion is a relatively modern phenomenon, it really struck home. When I learned that people like Pythagoras and Socrates didn't see science as separate from religion - in fact, they saw the natural world as a way to understand the divine - that made a lot of sense to me.

I think science describes the natural laws of the world but it can't really explain why those laws exist and operate the way they do. It's really descriptive, and I think sometimes we confuse the description with an explanation. And I think that Aslaug understands that. It doesn't mean that there's not validity in that. But for her, I think it comes down to an understanding of the natural world and an understanding of the divine as being the same.

HANSEN: Christina Meldrum's first novel is called "Madapple," and it's published by Knopf. She joined us from Grand Rapids, Michigan. Thank you very much.

MELDRUM: Thank you for having me.

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