Random House, 1998, 284 pages
A modern classic of personal journalism, The Orchid Thief is Susan Orlean’s wickedly funny, elegant, and captivating tale of an amazing obsession.
From Florida’s swamps to its courtrooms, the New Yorker writer follows one deeply eccentric and oddly attractive man’s possibly criminal pursuit of an endangered flower. Determined to clone the rare ghost orchid, Polyrrhiza lindenii, John Laroche leads Orlean on an unforgettable tour of America’s strange flower-selling subculture, along with the Seminole Indians who help him and the forces of justice who fight him. In the end, Orlean–and the reader–will have more respect for underdog determination and a powerful new definition of passion.
I only skimmed the summary before I picked this book up, so I didn't realize it was non-fiction until I started reading it. I thought it was a crime novel about an orchid thief.
In a way, it is, except that John Laroche is a real person, and The Orchid Thief is partly a biography of this intriguing scoundrel, partly a history of orchid obsession, partly a history of every crazy thing that's happened in Florida.
Orchids, from the Latin orchis, or testicle, are sexy, sexy plants.
Doesn't look very testicular if you ask me...
They were so sexy that Victorians, who went nuts for orchids and sent orchid-hunters to Borneo and China and Central America to collect new breeds, thought their shape was too suggestive to be exposed to ladies. Never mind that Queen Victoria herself was an orchid aficionado.
The Orchid Thief is about the history of this madness for orchids. People died for them, killed for them, and still cheat and steal and send each other death threats over them. Orchid breeders are a crazy, obsessive breed of their own.
However, the book is about a lot more than orchids. It's not clear that Susan Orlean was ever in love with John Laroche, as implied in the movie Adaptation (below), but she certainly found him to be a charming fellow, whom she describes as "a sharply handsome guy in spite of the fact that he is missing all his teeth and has the posture of al dente spaghetti."
John Laroche is a hell of a rogue. His career is full of elaborate schemes ranging from the slightly illegal to the completely felonious, all of which are intended to (1) make him rich; (2) show off how brilliant he is; (3) make the world a better place by teaching suckers a lesson, always in some weird twist of logic in which Laroche will demonstrate the consequences of bad behavior or loopholes in laws by breaking them and getting away with it.
Working for the Seminole Indian tribe, Laroche concocted a scheme whereby he and three Seminoles would steal hundreds of rare, endangered orchid species from a Florida state preserve and clone them, thereby becoming the only commercial source of these species for competitive orchid breeders. When they were all arrested, Laroche had his legal defense prepared: the Seminoles (and he, as their employee) were exempt from the laws protecting endangered species and forbidding the removal of wildlife from state property.
It didn't quite work out the way he planned, but as Orlean unwinds the tale, and goes into the Seminoles' much longer contentious history with the state of Florida, it just gets more interesting, and weirder.
Rounding out the weirder and seamier chapters of Florida history, Orlean talks about the Gulf American Land Corporation, whose massive marketing campaign and high-pressure sales tactics from 1957 until 1970 were responsible for turning "Florida swampland" into a synonym for "real estate scam." They sold thousands of plots of undeveloped Florida swampland to naive buyers across the country, many of whom still own the titles even though they've never visited their property (and aren't likely to without a swamp boat). The state of Florida has been trying to buy these parcels back a bit at a time for years. Golden Gate Estates, the partially-developed community that Gulf American built, is still semi-inhabited; the miles of roads and canals they built devastated the environment, and have now mostly deteriorated into festering alligator swamps and landing strips used by drug dealers.
For those who'd like to invest in Florida real estate, though, there are still plenty of parcels available.
This was a weird movie. It's about an adaptation of The Orchid Thief. It's not an adaptation of the book; it's about adapting the book. Nicolas Cage plays a dweeby screenwriter who is trying to adapt Susan Orlean's book. He also plays his suave twin brother, who is also a screenwriter. Meryl Streep plays Susan Orlean.
So, pros: Meryl Streep. Florida scenery.
Cons: Nicolas Cage. ×2.
Laroche becomes a fictional real character (or a real fictional character) and the movie portrays some of the scenes from Orlean's book in which she follows Laroche through the Florida swamps. But about half of it is about Nicolas Cage's characters. There's also an invented subplot in which Laroche and Orlean become lovers, and they are drug dealers, and there's a chase scene and alligators and WTF? It's kind of interesting to see the movie after reading the book, but it's very meta, and has too much Nicolas Cage.
Verdict: A fascinating, weird book about fascinating, weird people, most of whom seem to live in Florida. Orchids are really only the beginning of the story. Orlean includes the obligatory chapters on the history, biology, and genetics of orchids, but the people are a lot more interesting, from John Laroche, the "orchid thief," to the audaciously opportunistic Chief Billie of the Seminoles, to Leonard and Julius Rosen, who sold thousands of acres of Florida swampland to Midwesterners looking for a nice place to retire. The Orchid Thief is a nice piece of non-fiction with stories too improbable to be fiction.