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WILDFLOWER by Mark Seal

WILDFLOWER

An Extraordinary Life and Untimely Death in Africa

By Mark Seal

Pub Date: June 2nd, 2009
ISBN: 978-1-4000-6736-7
Publisher: Random House

Zesty biography of wildlife documentarian and conservationist Joan Root (1937–2006).

By the time Alan and Joan Root’s marriage ended in 1981, they had gained renown as documentary filmmakers of Africa’s fauna—or rather Alan had, as Vanity Fair contributing editor Seal makes clear. Spouting ideas and exuding reckless energy, Alan was the kind of gentleman who tended to hog all the oxygen, while shy, retiring Joan sturdily managed their affairs and the support side of the operation. (“You were the wind beneath my wings,” he admitted in a letter after their divorce.) But she would involuntarily steal the headlines in 2006 when she was shot to death in her home in Kenya, perhaps by robbers, perhaps by people angered by her strong stand against poaching and pollution. To make sense of that unsolved crime, Seal offers a detailed look at Root’s life. The author talked extensively with her former husband and had access to a trove of Joan’s diaries and letters (many unsent to Alan). Limning the Roots’ marriage and professional collaboration, Seal captures both the extraordinary quality of their work and Joan’s personality—specifically her attraction to her emotional opposite in Alan and her depression when he left. Seal expertly draws out the drama of the Roots’ days afield, “being chased, mauled, bitten, gored, and stung by every conceivable creature as they drove, flew, ran, and swam across Africa,” filming as they went. Even more compelling is the author’s portrait of the years Joan spent alone on the shores of Kenya’s Lake Naivasha, her fortitude in trying to protect the ecologically fragile area from poaching and illegal fishing and the fallout of the flower industry that sprang up on its shore. These were complex issues that braided social, economic and cultural factors, further fraught by Joan’s relationship with a poacher.

Transports readers into the midst of an incandescent, doomed life.