We tend to think of flower growers and collectors as timid, gentle souls who spend their days wistfully tending to their colorful collections and praying for a little rain. But in these true-life dispatches by New Yorker writer Susan Orlean, we're introduced to one particular strain of botanist that's chock full of characters, crazies, and con men -- the orchid lover. With a skillful blending of keen journalism, historical background, and first-person narrative, Orlean takes us behind the scenes in the highly competitive (and often combative) world of Florida's orchid scene.
Inspired by a newspaper account of three Seminole Indians and a white man (John Laroche, the thief of the title) facing trial for stealing some prize specimens out of a protected swamp area, Orlean introduces us to a cast of real-life plant smugglers, obsessed collectors, dealers who encourage breeding with their "stud" flowers, and even a country-singing flamboyant Seminole chief. All of their lives somehow intertwine with Laroche, who is, according to Orlean, the "most moral amoral man" she's ever met. Oddly handsome (though he's missing all his teeth), Laroche is equal parts slimy con man and moralizing do-gooder. He's also an unforgettable literary presence.
Orlean also writes thoroughly on the politics and business of Florida real estate, the history of orchid growing and hunting, and Native American relations. And though these pages sometimes read like a dry biology textbook, they are populated with peculiar information, like the true tales of the Victorian orchid hunters who often risked life and limb to claim rare flowers for their rich patrons -- sort of like a horticultural Indiana Jones.
The Orchid Thief is being compared to the spirit of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. But while the author of that monster-selling tome took a backseat to his cast of southern eccentrics and the area's unique sociology, Orlean offers a more compartmentalized book readable in segments. As readers of the novels of Carl Hiaasen or Elmore Leonard will tell you, the steamy state of Florida is full of tropical schemers, hidden secrets, and dirty dealings on or by the water. And all of them are present here -- except in this case, they're real. In the end, The Orchid Thief will make you look twice at that nice little old lady in the greenhouse with the glint in her eye.