The adage “never judge a book by its movie” is true in the case of Susan Orlean’s THE ORCHID THIEF. This book has nothing to do with screenwriting, Nicholas Cage, identical twins, or drug use. It has everything to do with orchids, international plant smuggling, Florida, wetlands, Seminoles, and people who get obsessed about a subject to an extent beyond what most of us can understand.
Orlean follows around John Larouche, an orchid expert who has the tendency to become completely engrossed in something to the exclusion of all else. During the course of the book, his passion is orchids. Larouche is arrested, along with some Seminole Indians he’s formed a partnership with, while poaching orchids from the Fakahatchee. She follows him from courtyhouse to orchid show to nursery, from cloning lab to swamp, trying to understand the man. Larouche is a character worthy of a biography. The Seminoles refer to him as “Crazy White Man” and that seems apt. Tall and wraith-like, possessing of his own peculiar moral code, Larouche is a walking encyclopedia about whatever subject currently fascinates him.
But Orlean doesn’t just talk about Larouche. She discusses the history of orchids, and of the men who were sent to the furthest reaches of the globe to secure these plants for orchid-mad collectors in the nineteenth century. She also talks about the history of the swamps of Florida, and about the impact the land has had on its inhabitants. I’ve never been to Florida, and this book makes it sound like such a fascinating and exotic place that it’s now firmly on my bucket list. I loved the little side stories of adventurers lost in the swamps, of alligator wrestlers, and of land plots that were sold and never lived in.
If you’re interested in plants, in history, and of human-botanical relations, I recommend this book. I especially recommend this book if you liked THE BOTANY OF DESIRE by Michael Pollan, because they both have a way of looking at plants through a sociological lens. I don’t necessarily recommend it for people who liked the movie ADAPTATION. The movie and the book have almost nothing to do with one another.