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    Being an orchid hunter has always meant pursuing beautiful things in terrible places.
                     -Susan Orlean

There has almost certainly never been a more off-putting piece of media than the venerable magazine The New Yorker--it's dense columns of prose marching along in glossy black and white, page after page...  But then you pick up a book by a John McPhee (see reviews above), a Roger Angell, a Joseph Mitchell, a Berton Roueche or a David Remnick and you realize what extraordinary pieces of journalism appear first in it's pages.  Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief is the latest example.  A general contributor to the magazine, she describes her style thus:

    I read lots of local newspapers and particularly the shortest articles in them, and most particularly
    any articles that are full of words in combinations that are arresting. In the case of the orchid
    story, I was interested to see the words 'swamp' and 'orchids' and 'Seminoles' and 'cloning' and
    'criminal' together in one short piece. Sometimes this kind of story turns out to be something more,
    some glimpse of life that expands like those Japanese paper balls you drop in water and then after
    a moment they bloom into flowers, and the flower is so marvelous that you can't believe there was
    a time when all you saw in front of you was a paper ball and a glass of water.

Well, as it turns out, this story is equal to her beautiful metaphor.

In 1994, John Laroche, the "orchid thief" and  three Seminole Indian men, were caught leaving a Florida Wildlife Preserve with bags full of Ghost orchid (Polyrrhiza lindenii) specimens. They challenged the arrest on the basis of a law allowing Native tribes to violate the endangered species act and some other rigmarole.  Orleans went to Florida to get the story, befriended the weirdly charismatic Laroche and gained entry to the bizarre world of orchid collectors.  As the story unfolds, she presents a detailed portrait of Laroche and dutifully reports on the court case, but she also offers a thorough natural history of orchids, with fascinating digressions on Florida itself, the Seminole Indians, etc.,  and of man's obsession with these remarkable plants.  The incredible lengths that collectors, and the hunters they employ, have gone to in order to find rare orchids makes for an original read.   But ultimately, the book becomes a kind of obsession with obsession:

    I suppose that is exactly what I was doing in Florida, figuring out how people found order and
    contentment and a sense of purpose in the universe by fixing their sights on one single thing or one
    belief or one desire.

One is inevitably reminded of Rex Stout's great eccentric detective Nero Wolfe (see Orrin's review of Fer-de-Lance: A Nero Wolfe Mystery), whose very oddity was symbolized by his obsession with orchids.  Orlean writes of her own efforts to avoid this fate, refusing to keep any of the plants that people pressed upon her, but the book ends with her tramping through a godforsaken swamp in search of a glimpse of the Ghost orchid that started the whole case.  In the end, even she has been consumed by this passion for a flower.

Now when I was a kid I experienced an epiphany thanks to a bag of rock salt.  Bags of Hailite used to show a polar bear carrying a bag of Hailite with the salt spilling out onto ice and, of course, the bag the bear was carrying repeated the same picture and so on and so on...  For the first time it struck me that this was an infinite series--the picture of the bear would continue ad infinitum.  Which brings us back to Susan Orlean.  If you set out to write about obsessive orchid collectors and become obsessed with them in turn, are you writing about obsession or demonstrating it?  Will someone come out with a book about authors who become obsessed with their topics?

This is a terrific book, Orlean wisely intersperses her reportage on the mercurial Laroche with the meatier segments on orchids, orchid hunters and other topics and she keeps the book short enough that we're done before our attention flags.  If she fails to determine exactly what causes her subjects to become obsessed with orchids and never reckons with her own fascination with them, these are forgivable flaws.  In the future, I'll look for her work in The New Yorker.

GRADE: A-

DOROTHY JUDD'S REVIEW:
Read Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief, and you will have an entirely new appreciation for the orchid.  Did you know that the orchid takes seven years from seed to bloom?  That there are over 100,000 named varieties and hybrids? That the plant lives so long fanciers make provisions for it in their wills?
I didn't think I was even interested in any of this, but Ms Orlean writes in such a way that I took in these facts as easily and unknowingly as the pills my mother crushed in applesauce.  But this is not just a book of facts, it is a tale of adventure, peppered with people who will go to any lengths to find or develop a unique plant.

The people in this book "sincerely loved something, trusted in the perfectibility of some living thing, lived for a myth about themselves and the idea of adventure, were convinced that certain things were really worth dying for, believed that they could make their lives whatever they dreamed."(p. 201)  The book actually exists on three levels: as a treatise on orchids; as a description of Laroche, the gnarly yet lovable thief of the title; as an explanation of the human passion for collecting and acquiring:

    The world is so huge that people are always getting lost in it.  There are too many ideas and things
    and people, too many directions to go.  I was starting to believe that the reason it matters to care
    passionately about something is that it whittles the world down to a more manageable size.
    It makes the world seem not huge and empty but full of possibility." (p. 109)

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (A)

  

Websites:

See also:

Nature
Nonfiction
Book-related and General Links:
    -EXCERPT: Chapter One The Millionaire's Hothouse (Denver Post)
    -INTERVIEW : A conversation with Susan Orlean The insatiably curious author of "The Orchid Thief" talks about working at the New Yorker, being played by Meryl Streep in a new movie and a lot more (Chris Colin, Salon)
    -Susan Orlean on Martha Stewart Living
    -INTERVIEW: (Whad'ya Know?, NPR)
    -REVIEW: (Ted Conover, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of The Orchid Thief , By Susan Orlean (Diane Carman , Denver Post)
    -REVIEW: (BOB RUGGIERO, Bookpage)
    -REVIEW: (Sally Eckhoff , Salon)

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