The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession

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Overview

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK
 
A modern classic of personal journalism, The Orchid Thief is Susan Orlean’s wickedly funny, elegant, and captivating tale of an amazing obsession. Determined to clone an endangered flower—the rare ghost orchid Polyrrhiza lindenii—a deeply eccentric and oddly attractive man named John Laroche leads Orlean on an unforgettable tour of America’s strange flower-selling subculture, ...

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The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession

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Overview

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK
 
A modern classic of personal journalism, The Orchid Thief is Susan Orlean’s wickedly funny, elegant, and captivating tale of an amazing obsession. Determined to clone an endangered flower—the rare ghost orchid Polyrrhiza lindenii—a deeply eccentric and oddly attractive man named John Laroche leads Orlean on an unforgettable tour of America’s strange flower-selling subculture, through Florida’s swamps and beyond, along with the Seminoles who help him and the forces of justice who fight him. In the end, Orlean—and the reader—will have more respect for underdog determination and a powerful new definition of passion.
 
In this new edition, coming fifteen years after its initial publication and twenty years after she first met the “orchid thief,” Orlean revisits this unforgettable world, and the route by which it was brought to the screen in the film Adaptation, in a new retrospective essay.

Look for special features inside. Join the Random House Reader’s Circle for author chats and more.
 
Praise for The Orchid Thief
 
“Stylishly written, whimsical yet sophisticated, quirkily detailed and full of empathy . . . The Orchid Thief shows [Orlean’s] gifts in full bloom.”The New York Times Book Review
 
“Fascinating . . . an engrossing journey [full] of theft, hatred, greed, jealousy, madness, and backstabbing.”Los Angeles Times
 
“Orlean’s snapshot-vivid, pitch-perfect prose . . . is fast becoming one of our national treasures.”The Washington Post Book World
 
“Orlean’s gifts [are] her ear for the self-skewing dialogue, her eye for the incongruous, convincing detail, and her Didion-like deftness in description.”Boston Sunday Globe
 
“A swashbuckling piece of reporting that celebrates some virtues that made America great.”The Wall Street Journal

The Orchid Thief was the inspiration for the film Adaptation, which has been nominated for the Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
Whatever the reason for their particular appeal, orchids, since their arrival in America in 1838, have come to symbolize elegance. Yet essayist Susan Orlean uncovers the rough drama behind the flower's history, recounting tales of paid professional hunters who met their deaths through drowning, fever, and murder in locales like Bhamo, Myanmar, Panama, and Ecuador. Contemporary Florida, it turns out, is a hotbed for the shady side of orchid mania, and it is there that Orlean meets the "thief" of her title, John Laroche. A reckless iconoclast, Laroche is an orchid breeder who gleefully cooks seeds in his microwave. After the wealthy Seminole tribe hires him to run a nursery, he concocts a grandiose scheme to obtain a rare "ghost" orchid from the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve and clone it. The slight hitch is that, under Florida's Endangered Species law, it's illegal to collect wild orchids. The Seminoles, however, consider themselves at war with America, and Laroche enlists a few members to commit the actual theft, assuming that Native Americans are exempt from government law. After stuffing 200 orchids into pillowcases, Laroche and his cohorts are arrested, and Laroche is convicted.

Orlean hopes Laroche will offer her insight into orchid mania, and he makes a lively, contrary companion as he guides her through Florida's often bizarre botanical subculture. In Palm Beach mansions and low-rent bungalows, at conferences, galas, and greenhouses, she is introduced to devotees who regale her with accounts of rivalries and discoveries, of lives both ruined and enlightened by a passion for "the most compelling and maddening of all collectible living things." In the end, Orlean herself succumbs to orchid mania and makes a heart-of-darkness trek into the frightening Fakahatchee swamp, taking the reader on a fascinating journey in which obsession ultimately becomes, in her vision, an optimistic belief in "the perfectibility of some living thing" and its power to transform our lives.

From the Publisher
“Stylishly written, whimsical yet sophisticated, quirkily detailed and full of empathy . . . The Orchid Thief shows [Orlean’s] gifts in full bloom.”The New York Times Book Review
 
“Fascinating . . . an engrossing journey [full] of theft, hatred, greed, jealousy, madness, and backstabbing.”Los Angeles Times
 
“Orlean’s snapshot-vivid, pitch-perfect prose . . . is fast becoming one of our national treasures.”The Washington Post Book World
 
“Orlean’s gifts [are] her ear for the self-skewing dialogue, her eye for the incongruous, convincing detail, and her Didion-like deftness in description.”Boston Sunday Globe
 
“A swashbuckling piece of reporting that celebrates some virtues that made America great.”The Wall Street Journal
USA Today
A lesson on the darkdangeroussometimes hilarious nature of obsession...You sometimes don't want to read onbut find you can't help it.
Detroit Free Press
Deliciously weird...luscious and oozy as a caramel left to sweat in the Miami sun.
Newsday
Damp heat, bugs, wild hogs, snapping turtles, poisonous snakes — and orchids...Wouldn't have missed it.
Salon.com
Susan Orlean, a New Yorker essayist, is fond of leafing through small-town newspapers. She knew she was on to something when she tripped over the following odd combination of words in a Florida daily: "swamp," "orchids," "Seminoles," "cloning," "arrest." The tiny news item, about an upcoming hearing for an accused rare-plant poacher, had "cool story" written all over it. And so, Orlean, a pale and completely unpretentious redhead who makes Maxfield Parrish's models look like she-bears, took off for Naples, Fla., to investigate. The scene was not exactly what she expected. Soon she was standing hip-deep in the steaming Fakahatchee Swamp beside the very man the fuss was all about, a driven, eccentrically charming weirdo who struck her as handsome despite his lack of teeth. Their quarry: the rare polyrrhiza lindenii, or ghost orchid, which is federally protected and grows nowhere else in the world.

John Laroche, the orchid thief, had been trying to spirit several pillowcases full of ghost orchids out of the swamp when he was arrested. That's how he first made the papers. His three Seminole assistants were supposed to legitimize the theft, since the Fakahatchee is Seminole land. It's not surprising that he'd risk his neck in order to snag such booty. Propagating and selling ghost orchids -- as the botanically savvy Laroche was fully able to do -- would have made him very rich. What's especially strange about The Orchid Thief -- and it becomes increasingly fascinating as the story progresses -- is what a big deal orchids are. There's a rollicking history of orchidmania in here, if you can imagine such a thing, and a series of cameos depicting nurserymen and international smuggling. Ultimately, Laroche turns out to be just another nut in a long line of orchid nuts.

Orlean's buoyant, self-assured style makes the journey fun, especially when she's looking at the plants themselves, which are astonishing in their variety. "There are species that look like butterflies, bats, ladies' handbags, bees, swarms of bees, female wasps, clamshells, roots, camel hooves, squirrels, nuns dressed in their wimples, and drunken old men," she writes, particularly dazzled by a flower that looks like a pig on a swizzle stick. "People say a ghost orchid in bloom looks like a flying white frog -- an ethereal and beautiful flying white frog." Are we going to get to see one? There's real suspense around this question, and it lasts until the very last page.
Sally Eckhoff

Sally Eckhoff
Susan Orlean, a New Yorker essayist, is fond of leafing through small-town newspapers. She knew she was on to something when she tripped over the following odd combination of words in a Florida daily: "swamp," "orchids," "Seminoles," "cloning," "arrest." The tiny news item, about an upcoming hearing for an accused rare-plant poacher, had "cool story" written all over it. And so, Orlean, a pale and completely unpretentious redhead who makes Maxfield Parrish's models look like she-bears, took off for Naples, Fla., to investigate. The scene was not exactly what she expected. Soon she was standing hip-deep in the steaming Fakahatchee Swamp beside the very man the fuss was all about, a driven, eccentrically charming weirdo who struck her as handsome despite his lack of teeth. Their quarry: the rare polyrrhiza lindenii, or ghost orchid, which is federally protected and grows nowhere else in the world.

John Laroche, the orchid thief, had been trying to spirit several pillowcases full of ghost orchids out of the swamp when he was arrested. That's how he first made the papers. His three Seminole assistants were supposed to legitimize the theft, since the Fakahatchee is Seminole land. It's not surprising that he'd risk his neck in order to snag such booty. Propagating and selling ghost orchids -- as the botanically savvy Laroche was fully able to do -- would have made him very rich. What's especially strange about The Orchid Thief -- and it becomes increasingly fascinating as the story progresses -- is what a big deal orchids are. There's a rollicking history of orchidmania in here, if you can imagine such a thing, and a series of cameos depicting nurserymen and international smuggling. Ultimately, Laroche turns out to be just another nut in a long line of orchid nuts.

Orlean's buoyant, self-assured style makes the journey fun, especially when she's looking at the plants themselves, which are astonishing in their variety. "There are species that look like butterflies, bats, ladies' handbags, bees, swarms of bees, female wasps, clamshells, roots, camel hooves, squirrels, nuns dressed in their wimples, and drunken old men," she writes, particularly dazzled by a flower that looks like a pig on a swizzle stick. "People say a ghost orchid in bloom looks like a flying white frog -- an ethereal and beautiful flying white frog." Are we going to get to see one? There's real suspense around this question, and it lasts until the very last page.
Salon

London Review of Books
...[F]ull of twists and turns....a fascinating account of one remarkable life form in pursuit of another, the cast of fanatics being as weird and wonderful as the hybrids themselves.
Richard Rudgley
New York Times
...[A]rtful....her orchid story turns out to be distinctly "something more"....Ms. Orlean's portrait..allows the reader to discover...acres of opportunity where intriguing things can be found.
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt
Entertainment Weekly
...[T]he portraits here are finely drawn and certainly a pleasure to read...
Vanessa Friedman
New York Times Book Review
Stylishly written, whimsical yet sophisticated, quirkily detailed...It shows Orlean's gifts in full bloom. —Ted Conover
Fine Gardening
Thievery is one thing, but any gardener swept away by the beauty of a plant can understand obsession, especially when it takes the form of an absolute, unbearable need to possess some delicate charm. And that obsession to own runs deep in those consumed by the surreal beauty of orchids. Susan Orlean explores the obsessive nature of those passions in this fascinating story of treachery, greed, jealousy, and lust among orchid hunters and collectors in South Florida. It's a tale rife with fascinating characters, exotic locales, and oddities of all kinds.
Steve Silk
Publishers Weekly
For listeners seeking to learn something new, Orlean offers a whimsical look at the sexy, mysterious world of orchids. Perfect for anyone who wants to know a little bit about a lot of things, this quirky, quintessential New Yorker story pulls back the curtain on a community of people who are driven by a passion to collect and cultivate some very exotic plants. New York journalist Orlean first learned about orchid "thief" John Laroche by reading a story about him in a local Florida newspaper. He (along with his henchmen, three Seminole Indians) had been taken to court for removing an endangered species of orchid from the state's Fakahatchee Swamp. Orlean hightailed it down to the Sunshine State to investigate and wound up immersing herself in the wacky world of orchid maniacs, intrigued more by their passion than by the orchids themselves. Myers's reading vacillates between the inspiring and the pedagogical. When reading passages about the over-the-top nature of some eccentric orchid collectors, her tone borders on the affected. But during the book's more introspective moments, as when Orlean wishes she could be as passionate about something as her subjects are about orchids, Myers turns quiet and pensive. Overall, Myers's enthusiastic performance is a perfect complement to Orlean's book and the new motion picture loosely based on it, Adaptation. Based on the Random hardcover. (Sept.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
The thief in question and offbeat genesis for New Yorker writer Orlean's book is ever-quotable eccentric John Laroche, whose craving for the rare orchid eventually lands him and three Indian accomplices in a Florida courtroom--and allows Orlean to write her appreciative and lyrically funny profile of obsession and Florida. (LJ 1/99) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Brill's Content
...[A]n engrossing tale of eccentric ambitions....[A] vivid, sympathetic account.
Matthew Heimer
Entertainment Weekly
...[T]he portraits here are finely drawn and certainly a pleasure to read...
Vanessa Friedman
Kirkus Reviews
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) 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, Florida, 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 Manhattantownhouse; and of other floral fanatics.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780449003718
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/4/2000
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 162,963
  • Product dimensions: 5.51 (w) x 8.18 (h) x 0.66 (d)

Meet the Author

Susan Orlean

SUSAN ORLEAN, a staff writer at The New Yorker, is the author of four books, including The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup: My Encounters with Extraordinary People.
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Read an Excerpt

The Millionaire's Hothouse

John Laroche is a tall guy, skinny as a stick, pale-eyed, slouch-shouldered, and sharply handsome, in spite of the fact that he is missing all his front teeth. He has the posture of al dente spaghetti and the nervous intensity of someone who plays a lot of video games. Laroche is thirty-six years old. Until recently he was employed by the Seminole Tribe of Florida, setting up a plant nursery and an orchid-propagation laboratory on the tribe's reservation in Hollywood, Florida.

Laroche strikes many people as eccentric. The Seminoles, for instance, have two nicknames for him: Troublemaker and Crazy White Man. Once, when Laroche was telling me about his childhood, he remarked, "Boy, I sure was a weird little kid." For as long as he can remember he has been exceptionally passionate and driven. When he was about nine or ten, his parents said he could pick out a pet. He decided to get a little turtle. Then he asked for ten more little turtles. Then he decided he wanted to breed the turtles, and then he started selling turtles to other kids, and then he could think of nothing but turtles and then decided that his life wasn't worth living unless he could collect one of every single turtle species known to mankind, including one of those sofa-sized tortoises from the Galapagos. Then, out of the blue, he fell out of love with turtles and fell madly in love with Ice Age fossils. He collected them, sold them, declared that he lived for them, then abandoned them for something else—lapidary I think—then he abandoned lapidary and became obsessed with collecting and resilvering old mirrors. Laroche's passions arrived unannounced and ended explosively, like car bombs. When I first met him he lusted only for orchids, especially the wild orchids growing in Florida's Fakahatchee Strand. I spent most of the next two years hanging around with him, and at the end of those two years he had gotten rid of every single orchid he owned and swore that he would never own another orchid for as long as he lived. He is usually true to his word. Years ago, between his Ice Age fossils and his old mirrors, he went through a tropical-fish phase. At its peak, he had more than sixty fish tanks in his house and went skin-diving regularly to collect fish. Then the end came. He didn't gradually lose interest: he renounced fish and vowed he would never again collect them and, for that matter, he would never set foot in the ocean again. That was seventeen years ago. He has lived his whole life only a couple of feet west of the Atlantic, but he has not dipped a toe in it since then.

Laroche tends to sound like a Mr. Encyclopedia, but he did not have a rigorous formal education. He went to public school in North Miami; other than that, he is self-taught. Once in a while he gets wistful about the life he thinks he would have led if he had applied himself more conventionally. He believes he would have probably become a brain surgeon and that he would have made major brain-research breakthroughs and become rich and famous. Instead, he lives in a frayed Florida bungalow with his father and has always scratched out a living in unaverage ways. One of his greatest assets is optimism—that is, he sees a profitable outcome in practically every life situation, including disastrous ones. Years ago he spilled toxic pesticide into a cut on his hand and suffered permanent heart and liver damage from it. In his opinion, it was all for the best because he was able to sell an article about the experience ("Would You Die for Your Plants?") to a gardening journal. When I first met him, he was working on a guide to growing plants at home. He told me he was going to advertise it in High Times, the marijuana magazine. He said the ad wouldn't mention that marijuana plants grown according to his guide would never mature and therefore never be psychoactive. The guide was one of his all-time favorite projects. The way he saw it, he was going to make lots of money on it (always excellent) plus he would be encouraging kids to grow plants (very righteous) plus the missing information in the guide would keep these kids from getting stoned because the plants they would grow would be impotent (incalculably noble). This last fact was the aspect of the project he was proudest of, because he believed that once kids who bought the guide realized they'd wasted their money trying to do something illegal—namely, grow and smoke pot—they would also realize, thanks to John Laroche, that crime doesn't pay. Schemes like these, folding virtue and criminality around profit, are Laroche's specialty. Just when you have finally concluded that he is a run-of-the-mill crook, he unveils an ulterior and somewhat principled but always lucrative reason for his crookedness. He likes to describe himself as a shrewd bastard. He loves doing things the hard way, especially if it means that he gets to do what he wants to do but also gets to leave everyone else wondering how he managed to get away with it. He is quite an unusual person. He is also the most moral amoral person I've ever known.

I met John Laroche for the first time a few years ago, at the Collier County Courthouse in Naples, Florida. I was in Florida at the time because I had read a newspaper article reporting that a white man—Laroche—and three Seminole men had been arrested with rare orchids they had stolen out of a Florida swamp called the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve, and I wanted to know more about the incident. The newspaper story was short but alluring. It described the Fakahatchee as a wild swamp near Naples filled with exceptional plants and trees, including some that don't grow anywhere else in the United States and some that grow nowhere else in the world. All wild orchids are now considered endangered, and it is illegal to take them out of the woods anywhere, and particularly out of a state property like the Fakahatchee. According to the newspaper, Laroche was the ringleader of the poachers. He provided the arresting officers with the proper botanical varietal names for all the stolen plants and explained that the plants were bound for a laboratory where they were going to be cloned by the millions and then sold to orchid collectors around the world.

I read lots of local newspapers and particularly the shortest articles in them, and most particularly any articles that are full of words in combinations that are arresting. In the case of the orchid story I was interested to see the words "swamp" and "orchids" and "Seminoles" and "cloning" and "criminal" together in one short piece. Sometimes this kind of story turns out to be something more, some glimpse of life that expands like those Japanese paper balls you drop in water and then after a moment they bloom into flowers, and the flower is so marvelous that you can't believe there was a time when all you saw in front of you was a paper ball and a glass of water. The judge in the Seminole orchid case had scheduled a hearing a few weeks after I read the article, so I arranged to go down to Naples to see if this ball of paper might bloom.

It was the dead center of winter when I left New York; in Naples it was warm and gummy, and from my plane I could see thick thunderclouds trolling along the edge of the sky. I checked into a big hotel on the beach, and that evening I stood on my balcony and watched the storm explode over the water. The hearing was the next morning at nine. As I pulled out of the hotel garage the parking attendant warned me to drive carefully. "See, in Naples you got to be careful," he said, leaning in my window. He smelled like daiquiris. It was probably suntan lotion. "When it rains here," he added, "cars start to fly." There are more golf courses per person in Naples than anywhere else in the world, and in spite of the hot, angry weather everyone around the hotel was dressed to play, their cleated shoes tapping out a clickety-clickety-clickety tattoo on the sidewalks.

The courthouse was a few miles south of town in a fresh-looking building made of bleached stone pocked with fossilized seashells. When I arrived, there were a few people inside, nobody talking to anybody, no sounds except for the creaking of the wooden benches and the sound of some guy in the front row gunning his throat. After a moment I recognized Laroche from the newspaper picture I'd seen. He was not especially dressed up for court. He was wearing wraparound Mylar sunglasses, a polyblend shirt printed with some sort of scenic design, a Miami Hurricanes baseball cap, and worn-out grayish trousers that sagged around his rear. He looked as if he wanted a cigarette. He was starting to stand up when the judge came in and settled in her chair; he sat down and looked cross. The prosecutor then rose and read the state's charges—that on December 21, 1994, Laroche and his three Seminole assistants had illegally removed more than two hundred rare orchid and bromeliad plants from the Fakahatchee and were apprehended leaving the swamp in possession of four cotton pillowcases full of flowers. They were accused of criminal possession of endangered species and of illegally removing plant life from state property, both of which are punishable by jail time and fines.

The judge listened with a blank expression, and when the prosecutor finished she called Laroche to testify. He made a racket getting up from his seat and then sauntered to the center of the courtroom with his head cocked toward the judge and his thumbs hooked in his belt loops. The judge squinted at him and told him to state his name and address and to describe his expertise with plants. Laroche jiggled his foot and shrugged. "Well, Your Honor," he said, "I'm a horticultural consultant. I've been a professional horticulturist for approximately twelve years and I've owned a plant nursery with a number of plants of great commercial and ethnobiological value. I have very extensive experience with orchids and with the asexual micropropagation of orchids under aseptic cultures." He paused for a moment and grinned. Then he glanced around the room and added, "Frankly, Your Honor, I'm probably the smartest person I know."

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Table of Contents

The Millionaire's Hothouse 3
Cloning the Ghost 20
A Green Hell 34
Orchid Fever 42
A Mortal Occupation 55
Gorgeous 86
The Good Life 103
Anyone Can Grow Orchids 134
Plant Crimes 153
Barbecued Doves 184
Osceola's Head 203
Fortunes 244
A Kind of Direction 262
Bibliography 283
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Interviews & Essays

Before the live bn.com chat, Susan Orlean agreed to answer some of our questions:

Q: What would you consider the biggest surprise you came across while researching this book? Where there any times that you questioned what you were doing while researching and writing The Orchid Thief?

A: What was the biggest surprise I came across when researching this book? There were so many surprises that I can hardly choose the biggest. The story itself was a surprise to me: I had never heard of the Fakahatchee Strand; I didn't know that orchids grew wild in Florida; I didn't know the Seminole tribe is still technically at war with the United States; I knew nothing about the history of orchid collecting; and most importantly, I had no idea that people were as passionate about orchids as they are, although I've since come to realize that people can be passionate about anything, as long as they value it. Like any writer, I questioned what I was doing through the entire time I was writing The Orchid Thief! I asked myself repeatedly whether it was a story that had any greater meaning beyond the peculiarities of its subject, and I questioned whether anyone other than a hard-core orchid fanatic could be drawn into the tale.

Q: What to you are a few of the unique characteristics of southern Florida, the backdrop of The Orchid Thief?

A: South Florida is boundlessly interesting and strange. Physically, it is almost amphibian -- half land and half sea -- and it can seem to shift from one form to another almost seamlessly. There are plants and animals growing in South Florida that simply grow nowhere else in the world, and certainly nowhere else in the U.S. But there's more to its uniqueness than the physical: South Florida is a kind of dreamscape, filled with people who have been drawn to it because it seems to offer a chance to reinvent yourself and live a very different life. So much of it is new or in flux that it has the feel of something imagined, something that can change in a moment's notice, and the people who come in and out of South Florida seem to embody that feeling. That's what makes it fascinating and a little maddening -- a little hard to pin down.

Q: Who would you list as your literary influences?

A: My literary influences come from both fiction and nonfiction. I consumed huge quantities of Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Joyce in my time and was really inspired by their work -- and continue to be. My nonfiction idols (in no particular order) are John McPhee, Joseph Mitchell, Joan Didion, Roger Angell, Michael Herr, Tim O'Brien, and the entire New Yorker roster of greats, including Mark Singer, Alec Wilkinson, and Ian Frazier.

Q: What is your current relationship with John Laroche? Has he seen the book?

A: I've stayed in touch a bit with Laroche, because we had to correct a few legal issues and needed his help on that, and also because we are both consultants on the movie script that Jonathan Demme is producing of The Orchid Thief. I don't talk to him often, but he did call me the other day and told me he'd read the book and that he thought I'd done "a pretty good job," which from Laroche is like getting a Nobel Prize. I'd say we will always have some kind of connection, considering what doing a project like this means to my life, and I assume to his. He's quite a character. I'm curious to see what he'll be up to in the next ten or 15 years.


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Reading Group Guide

1) Is there a hero in The Orchid Thief? An anti-hero?

2) Is the book subjective? Objective? Or a different genre altogether?

3) Some people describe this as "literary non-fiction." Is that how you would characterize it?

4) Susan Orlean resists the temptation to feel possessed by the orchids but she is willing to undergo great trials in order to satisfy her passion for reporting. Is this passion evident in her writing?

5) The passion for collecting is described in the book as a means of infusing meaning into life, subjecting the vicissitudes to some order, acquiring the ability to mold and change the nature of things, i.e. create life itself. What other means do humans employ to achieve the same ends, and how effective are they?

6) John Laroche would not describe himself as an orchid person. To him the orchid is a temporary albeit very intense passion, a means to an end, not an end in itself. How would you analyze the difference between Laroche's motives in collecting orchids and the regular orchid collectors we visit in the course of the book?

7) Laroche wrestles verbally with the thought that acting within what he considered the bounds of the law for his own immediate gain was ultimately an act of altruism. His rape of the Fakahatchee would force the law to be changed and close the loophole that allowed him to poach rare and wild orchids form an Indian reservation in the first place, thus protecting the species in the wild, and securing it for the marketplace at the same time. Is this the thought process of an amoral character? Or is he just an everyday charlatan? Discuss.

8) Laroche makes a very telling statement: "When I had my own nursery I sometimes felt like all the people swarming around were going to eat me alive. I felt like they were that gigantic parasitic plant and I was the dying host tree." Is Laroche playing the role of the victim, the martyr to a (preferably lost, but grand) cause or is he in control of his life by making a living off other people's weaknesses, whether it be a passion for orchids or pornography? Discuss.

9) Orlean seems fascinated by the story of Darwin and the study of the orchid with the eighteen inch nectary and the moth with the eighteen inch proboscis to feed on it: the idea that two totally different life forms evolved specifically to serve each other; that neither could have existed without the other. What has the evidence of the orchid's adaptability altered your perception of the theories of evolution?

10) Orlean interrupts her central narrative of John Laroche with stories of the orchid hunters of the past, the contemporary state for Florida and other histories. How does this affect the pace of the work?

11) Is the framework she has devised successful?

12) The Native Americans on the reservation are entitled by one law to remove protected species from their land. Is this law justified?

13) Orlean seems surprised by the abundance of sexual references to orchids in their book. Yet the flower is the prime sexual organ of most plants. Seek out a florist with a good representation of orchids. What alternative descriptions of these exotic flowers can you devise?

14) What is the real core, the central character, of the book: Laroche? Florida? Orchids? Native Americans? Darwin? Orlean?

15) As a reader, what did you expect from a book about orchids?

16) How did your experience for reading The Orchid Thief compare to what you expected?

17) The working title of The Orchid Thief was "Passion." What does that suggest about the themes in the book?

18) What, besides orchids, could generate a book like this?

19) Are there other subcultures or other objects of desire that might be as provocative?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 18 )
Rating Distribution

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(6)

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2 Star

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Sort by: Showing all of 18 Customer Reviews
  • Posted June 2, 2009

    A fascinating look into the world of orchid lovers

    I really didn't realize that this book was non fiction. I was just going by the scenes I had seen from the movie and assumed it was fiction. To the folks that are not into orchidelirium, the people that are probably are stranger than fiction. Since I have a small orchid collection but refuse to pay more than $50 for one, this world of obsession where a collector will pay thousands of dollars for a rare speciman, is even beyond my comprehension. The book is based on the authors reading an article in a Florida newspaper about a case of 4 people trying to steal ghost orchids off of Seminole reservation property. Why? Because a man named Larouche wants to clone them and make millions of dollars while at the same time show the US Park Service that they need to take better care of the orchids. Keep them safe from poachers like him. Some times this reminded me of Carl Hiaasen's writing of the quirky characters of south Florida. Murder, mayhem, theft, adultry, threats, and strange animals and reptiles all smuggles in via underwear. So, we get quite a bit of Seminole history, history of Florida, history of the settling of Florida and at times, that becomes tedious. But as an orchid lover who will drive several hours to an orchid show or wholesaler, I thoroughly enjoyed understanding more about the world of orchids and the uniqueness of its world (both plant and human).

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 13, 2012

    Buy a Reference Book Instead

    This book is, if anything, misleading.

    A book titled "The Orchid Thief" that begins with the trial of Laroche (said orchid thief) should actually be about this man, his obsession, his story, or what he represents to our culture. What this book really is, is a history of orchids, orchid growers, Seminole Indians, orchid families, and orchid cloning. Each snippet of history is chopped up, interjected, segmented, and cut off abruptly before leading into the next piece of poorly written "history."

    This style of writing, which contains more sidetracks than actual story, keeps you from being able to connect with any character, and leaves you wishing this book was ACTUALLY about Laroche. The author uses his interesting character as an excuse to spout out whatever research she had to do about orchids and talk about how she feels in Florida. Admittedly, there were some interesting factoids and observations, but you would get better information in a more logical manner from reading an encyclopedia, or an actual botanical history.

    This book is riddled with grammatical errors, the most irritating of which are run-on sentences and lists that go on for (literally) pages at a time. I found that by the time I reached the end of a list (often of people or things that were never brought up again), I had forgotten what the author was saying altogether.

    The story contained in this book could have easily been contained in a nice feature article. I may have even enjoyed it. But as it is, this book was about 200 pages too long, impossible to sift through, and fell frustratingly short on the story that supposedly drove the whole book in the first place.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 19, 2007

    Sprawling New Yorker Stuff

    As screenwriter Charlie Kaufman in the movie Adaptation, Nicolas Cage is frustrated with the assignment of adapting The Orchid Thief into a screenplay. 'It's that sprawling New Yorker 'stuff'' Cage complains, yet he admires the book for its beauty and longing and truthfulness. Well, Cage/Kaufman was right on all accounts. The Orchid Thief 'not accurately represented in the movie, in case you were wondering' is sprawling, and beautiful. Orlean wrote herself into the story of John Laroche, who was caught stealing orchids and other rare plants out of Florida's Fakahatchee State Preserve, and Kaufman follows suit by writing himself into the movie. Orlean took a very minor event and investigated it as thoroughly as possible, taking several detours throughout the book to further examine the history of orchid obsession, shady Florida land deals, and the Seminole Indian tribe as well as various infamous historical figures of same. Orlean's writing style is that of a chatty but extremely well-informed friend. Run-on sentences and extremely long paragraphs -- I saw more than a few that were over a page long -- are the order of the day, thick with historical research and a wacky cast of characters that rivals anything set to print by Elmore Leonard or Carl Hiaasen. Orlean's rambling style and frequent diversions from course were distracting to me, but it was marvelous how she kept it interesting and pulled everything together with the theme of what we do in the name of passion. Like Dan Brown's celebrated efforts on Christian History, I never knew orchids could be so interesting.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 9, 2014

    I had high hopes for this book but ended up skimming the last ha

    I had high hopes for this book but ended up skimming the last half.  The information about orchids is fascinating as are the descriptions of the Florida swamps and the people who are in the orchid game.  However, the book reads more like an extended article in the New Yorker.  I'm not sorry I read/skimmed it,.  It's a solid C+.

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  • Posted May 22, 2012

    Interesting

    Not very organized, but very interesting information about orchids, Seminole history, south Florida culture, etc.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 1, 2004

    A Really Great Read

    Although I myself am mostly a lover of fiction, Orlean's almost 'New Journalism' style, along with the amazing story of orchids and their obsessive owners and hunters, creates a great read which I had as much trouble putting down as Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code. It's worth whatever this website is charging to get yourself a copy.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 24, 2004

    orchidelicious

    It's eloquent really.. I'm not much of a history buff as my friends but I was intruiged by the history of orchids and how mankind is involved with them. I would be lying if I said I finished the book but so far it's splendid. I saw the movie Adaptation and knew I had to read this book. It hasn't disappointed me.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 20, 2004

    a textbook on orchids

    dry and dull -- reads like a textbook on orchids.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 14, 2003

    A GREAT HISTORY LESSON

    I HAVE LIVED IN S. FLORIDA FOR OVER 30 YEARS AND WAS AMAZED TO LEARN SO MANY INTERESTING FACTS ABOUT THE HISTORY OF THIS AREA FROM THIS BOOK. I WANT TO GIVE IT TO EVERYONE I KNOW. THIS TRUE STORY IS AS THRILLING AS ANY FICTION I HAVE READ.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 11, 2003

    It doesn't always have to be about something big...

    If you know good writing when you read it, you should appreciate this book. Framed around the eccentricities of a man you've never heard of and wouldn't necessarily ever befriend, the author reveals a cult of sorts - that of orchid growers/collectors, and along the way shares fascinating information, including but not limited to, the history of Florida from it's wild stages to it's rapid and enveloping development. She becomes almost as obsessed as her subjects, trying desperately to lay eyes on something she has been convinced is true beauty. Althoug at times long and tedious, the story is rewarding in its telling of a tale of self discovery, and not just the author's. A good read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 3, 2003

    BRILLIANT

    What can i say? IT WAS AWESOME

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 16, 2002

    AN ARTICULATE, ARTFUL READING

    Consummate voice performer Jennifer Jay Myers gives an articulate and artful reading of this tale of passion and obsession. New Yorker staff member Susan Orlean expands on a previously published article to offer an always fascinating, sometimes hilarious true story of John Laroche, a swindler and con man, who plotted to steal rare orchids form Florida's Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve. His intention was to clone them and make mega bucks selling them on the black market. But, even the best laid plans go awry - Laroche and three Seminole tribesmen were caught with their fingers in the plants, so to speak. Avid reporter that she is Orlean follows not only Laroche's trails and trials but also relates the stories of others suffering from orchid fever. She traces this symbolic plant from its early 19th century emergence in the U.S. to the homes of collectors who value a rare species above all. For the detail minded facts and figures abound. For all there is a unique and compelling story told.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 1, 2001

    An Orchid-Lover's Dream

    I enjoyed this book very much. Being a plant- and orchid-lover myself, I loved all the historical information about orchid poaching & hunting in the 19th century. Also - I had no idea that orchid poaching was still going on in Florida, and this book was an eye-opener about what PASSION people have for collecting orchids and to what lengths they will go to expand their collections. A very well-researched book with lots of insight into the world of crazed orchid lovers. Highly recommended to fellow flower enthusiasts.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 6, 2001

    More aptly titled 'The History of Orchids'

    I was expecting the book to concern the theft of the ghost orchids and the ensuing court case. Instead, the book traces the discovery and cultivation of the present-day orchid. Good history lesson, but not what I expected.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 29, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted June 27, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted June 4, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted February 23, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

Sort by: Showing all of 18 Customer Reviews

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