Orchids. Some people are completely obsessed with collecting and growing these (sometimes) rare and (often) ugly plants. One such collector was John Laroche, who was convicted of stealing protected orchids in Florida. Susan Orlean found him a fascinating character and she followed him around for a couple of years, gaining insights into his behaviour, the collecting mentality and the often shady world of orchid-growing businesses. The result of this is an interesting book which is a mixture of travel writing, true crime, nature writing and memoir.
The way that Orlean creates a sense of place is very impressive. I’ve never been to Florida and knew little about the state before I read this book. Her descriptions of the landscape and particularly the swamps are wonderful and I felt that I was right there. You could describe the book as a portrait of Florida. This is not merely a book about orchids (which, by the way, she has no special love for). It’s about how far people will go to get what they want. It’s about the conflict between state law and tribal traditions. It’s about how things become desirable just because they’re rare or difficult to acquire. The writing has an informal documentary tone which tends not to judge the characters. Despite the orchid theme, I feel that humans are the main focus.
Generally I liked the book a lot. It’s very readable and has plenty of dialogue to bring the tales alive. Throughout, Susan is haunted (pun intended) by the idea of the ghost orchid, a native of Florida which John Laroche is obsessed with. Ghost orchids are rare and he has the idea of growing them for profit, but he can only get the plants to begin with by stealing them from the Fakahatchee Strand, the local nature reserve, with the help of the Seminole tribe. The orchid’s flowering is brief and Susan keeps missing it. Will she ever get to see one in bloom?
The only thing I wasn’t keen on in this book was the repetition of information in a few chapters. I’m sure that the author was just reinforcing her ideas but I prefer not to read the same bit of text (or similarly worded) more than once.
If you enjoyed The Library Book, you might like The Orchid Thief, as it uses the same concept of moving back and forth between a present day criminal case and the history of the location and related topics. You don’t need to be an orchid fan to enjoy this book.
First published in 1998. This edition published in 2000 by Vintage.