The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession
Posted by nliakos on June 3, 2011
by Susan Orlean (1998; Ballantine paperback)
The orchid thief of the title, John Laroche, is not in fact what this book is about. It is about orchids and the people who love them and collect them (John Laroche being one of these; he does appear in many chapters and sort of ties the narrative together). It is about the history of the orchid industry and to some extent about the biology of orchids, “the most highly evolved flowering plants on earth,” of which 30,000 natural species are known to exist; orchid fanciers have created maybe 100,000 more by cross-breeding. It is about Susan Orlean’s refusal to be drawn into the seductive world of orchid fanciers while interviewing them, following them around, attending orchid shows, and researching the facts for the book, and for her quest for a “ghost orchid”, polyrrhiza lindenii, which leads her to wade into the black waters of Florida’s Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve, feeling for alligators in the muddy bottom before she puts her weight down. It is about the Seminoles, who, it turns out, are actually Cherokees and Miccosukees who fled into the Everglades to escape being exiled to Oklahoma by the white invaders, and their valiant and gentlemanly leader Osceola, who “fought on principle, was captured ignominiously, died prematurely, and left behind an unconquered people.” And it is about Florida, which as described by Orlean is a truly unique place the rest of us can hardly imagine–a place people go to reinvent themselves as something other than what they are. I found the book fascinating!
Orlean’s prose reminds me of the writing of John McPhee, another favorite writer of mine. She crafts long paragraphs stuffed with facts, and she explains things by writing about the people, living and dead, who devote (and devoted) their lives and fortunes to this most interesting of plants.