March 11th, 2012


Book Review: The Orchid Thief, by Susan Orlean

Orchids, alligators, and Indians, and a scammer with a heart of... nah, he's still just a scammer.

The Orchid Thief

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.

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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.