Kirkus Reviews QR Code
THE ORCHID THIEF by Susan Orlean

THE ORCHID THIEF

By Susan Orlean

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-679-44739-3
Publisher: Random House

Expanded from a New Yorker article, this long-winded if well-informed tale has less to do with John Laroche, the “thief,” than it does with our author’s desire to craft a comprehensive natural and social history of what the Victorians called “orchidelirium.” Orlean (Saturday Night, 1990) piles anecdote upon detail upon anecdote—and keeps on piling them. Laroche, who managed a plant nursery and orchid propagation laboratory for the Seminole tribe of Hollywood, Fla., was arrested, along with three tribesmen, in 1994 for stealing rare orchids——endangered species——from the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve. He had intended to clone the rarer ones (in particular, the so-called “ghost orchid”) and sell them on the black market. Always a schemer and an eccentric hobbyist (old mirrors, turtles, and Ice Age fossils all fascinated him), Laroche figured he’d make millions. Found guilty, he was fined and banned from the Fakahatchee; the Seminoles, ostensibly exempt under the “Florida Indian” statute concerning the use of wildlife habitats, pled no contest. But Laroche’s travails form only the framework for Orlean’s accounts of famous and infamous orchid smugglers, hunters, and growers, and for her analyses of the mania for “the most compelling and maddening of all collectible living things.” She traces the orchid’s arrival in the US to 1838, when James Boott of London sent a tropical orchid to his brother in Boston. That collection would eventually be housed at Harvard College. Orlean includes passages on legendary hunter Joseph Hooker, eventually director of the Royal Botanical Gardens; on collectors, such as the man who kept 3,000 rare orchids atop his Manhattan townhouse; and of other floral fanatics. Enticing for those smitten with the botanical history of this “sexually suggestive” flower. As for everyone else, there’s little or no narrative drive to keep all the facts and mini-narratives flowing. (Author tour)