Susan Orlean’s THE ORCHID THIEF is a real-life character profile of one John Laroche, a plant dealer working for a Florida Seminole plant nursery. Laroche has a plan — a heist, really, even though it’s sanctioned by his Seminole nursery boss — to lead a few Seminole co-workers into Florida’s Fakahatchee Strand, land that Seminoles have the legal right to take wild flowers from, and leave with several ghost orchids which Laroche will then clone and he and the Seminoles will profit from. Laroche sees it as a win-win.
Unfortunately, he and the workers are caught, and then the legal rights of the Seminoles are called into question.
While it sounds more like a legal thriller, the case simply simmers in the background for the bulk of the book. Instead, it’s really Susan Orlean trying to understand the personal and zealous obsession of orchid collectors, as well as scrutinizing the growers and dealers who live as aberrant fringe elements in an inhospitable environment (mirroring the deviancy and adaptation of orchids themselves), while also spotlighting the tenacity of the Seminoles to live on their own terms.
Over the better part of a year, Orlean travels to orchid shows, swamps, nurseries, and encounters some savvy strange folk, some natural inventors and businessmen, others are oddities that eke out an existence. The line connecting all of her subjects? They all want more flowers, and they want more -interesting- and -different- flowers. It’s never enough, despite the fact that the flowers often die due to undesirable conditions or lack of knowledge as to how to sustain them. It’s not enough to see the orchids in their natural habitat — it’s a need for possession and ownership.
Orlean’s claim in this investigation is that she’s trying to understand this obsession, but I think she does. She’s there to collect stories, collect enough to make an enticing piece — not unlike some of the orchid events. It’s what she’s done as a journalist for THE NEW YORKER her entire life. She puts herself in severely unsafe situations for the sake of her collecting, not unlike Laroche.
It’s a fantastically woven and admirable work; a once-in-a-lifetime confluence of events and personas that embody themes both small and large, personal and political, beautiful and ugly.