John Laroche was no ordinary thief, he was one of the toughest and most determined of them all, even if he didn’t look like it. Did he steal a million dollars, no, he stole something much more precious: rare orchids from the Fakahatchee State Strand in Florida. In The Orchid Thief, author and journalist Susan Orlean follows horticulturist John Laroche’s story of collection, cultivation, and theft of exotic orchids in the Florida wetlands. She expertly uses her diction to paint colorfully detailed scenes in the readers’ minds, scenes of orchids themselves, of their magnificently flamboyant shows, and of trekking through the wild jungle that is Florida to find them.
Throughout the novel, Orlean combines commentary of her interactions with Laroche and her own adventures in swampland with historical information about both Florida as well as orchid hunting and collecting. Together, she weaves a beautiful narrative that ultimately describes her journey trying to understand why “orchid people” and more specifically Laroche go to such great lengths for these plants. With the historical knowledge of orchid hunting and collecting combined with the contemporary accounts of interactions with park rangers and orchid collectors alike, a reader can begin to understand just what makes them so fascinating to so many people.
When discussing historical orchid hunters, Orlean makes the comment that few of them are remembered today, so while Laroche may have been one of the toughest hunters had he been one of their contemporaries, the thought of being forgotten would have been unsettling. That is in part why, I believe, it was important for Laroche’s identity to be revealed in the book. It would not have been enough to give him an alias and call him “the man that stole rare orchids for the Seminole tribe.” Additionally, his identity was already revealed in other press coverage of the heist; Orlean does not address these reports in depth, just that they exist. So while she may have started her research with other journalists’ work, she went out on her own to investigate just what kind of trouble Laroche was stirring up and more importantly why. She credits the “why” to two things: his pride and desire to be the first orchid collector to breed the elusive ghost orchid and to satisfy his slightly twisted altruism of making it more difficult for others to replicate him and thus more effectively protect wild orchids.
Now that I’ve given a brief overview of the book, let me voice my opinions of it. On the whole, it was a good book. It was well written, well researched, and for the most part interesting. That is to say, it is one of the most boring interesting books I’ve read. I love learning new facts and think history is fascinating, but I felt that some of Orlean’s narrative breaks to provide historical vignettes really broke up the flow of the story. While I appreciate a good background narrative, I got tired of her describing orchid hunter death after orchid hunter death and longed for the end of her section about how Gulf American screwed over dozens of people and their land eventually became part of the Fakahatchee Strand.
Additionally, there were times when I wasn’t sure whose story she was setting out to tell: hers or Laroche’s. I suppose one could argue that theirs is a story intertwined, she would have to give the reader background and insight into his life, but any present observations and commentary had to be made when she was with him. But then, there would be times where she would thoroughly describe her own adventures in Florida: wading through swamp to see orchids Laroche stole, attending orchid events, or describing her shopping trips to prepare for said wades through swampland. I wanted to know more about Laroche’s infamous heist: the why, the how, and the aftermath. While she did give some explanation for it, I felt that she could have given more.
Overall, I enjoyed the book immensely. I’m a sucker for good imagery and Orlean’s imagery is great. Her descriptions of everything from the plants to Laroche left vivid mental pictures in my mind. Secondly, her eloquent but efficient diction showed the perfect mix of journalist and author. Not once did I feel as though I was reading an article in a magazine, even if I did at times feel as though I was reading a text book. I would highly recommend this to anyone who likes plants and a good story.