Wildflower: An Extraordinary Life and Untimely Death in Africa

Wildflower: An Extraordinary Life and Untimely Death in Africa

4.2 33
by Mark Seal

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With compassion and an unswerving regard for the truth, veteran journalist Mark Seal lays bare the deeply moving, inspirational story of Joan Root, a dedicated environmentalist and Oscar-nominated wildlife filmmaker. He covers her early days in Kenya as a shy young woman with an almost uncanny ability to connect to animals; her whirlwind courtship with the dashing


With compassion and an unswerving regard for the truth, veteran journalist Mark Seal lays bare the deeply moving, inspirational story of Joan Root, a dedicated environmentalist and Oscar-nominated wildlife filmmaker. He covers her early days in Kenya as a shy young woman with an almost uncanny ability to connect to animals; her whirlwind courtship with the dashing Alan Root, their marriage, and the twenty years of nonstop adventure and passionate romance that followed, both in Africa and around the world; the shattering disintegration of the marriage and partnership; and Joan’s triumphant struggle to reinvent herself as the protector of her lakeshore community’s fragile ecosystem—a struggle that would lead to her tragic death in January 2006. Joan Root dreamed of a bright future for Kenya, a country blessed with unmatched beauty but scarred by decades of colonization and a culture of corruption. She spent her life fighting to make that dream a reality. Her life ended too soon, but “thanks to Seal’s meticulous re-creation, her extraordinary life lives on.” (People, four-star review)

Editorial Reviews

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Joan Root was English by heritage, African by birth, and a lover of Kenya, its animals, and its people. Her home on the banks of Lake Vainasha was a veritable Eden to a menagerie of recuperating and orphaned animals. A visitor once mistook for a waterbed Joan's pet hippo, Sally, who was napping in a corner of the room.

So shy that her only response to a scorpion's sting was a soft "oh," Joan became, through quiet determination, one of East Africa's most respected voices for conservation. With her former husband, Alan, she'd made some of the most celebrated wildlife films ever produced. When poachers and massive flower farms began to destroy the region's delicate ecosystem, she worked with the poachers rather than sending them to jail, hoping to instill a love of conservation in native Kenyans.

By the time a small group of African gunmen opened fire through the bars in her bedroom window, killing the 69-year-old Root, she'd lived at the lake for 25 years. Hers was a gentle but stalwart voice that spoke for patience and knowledge. Her death came from a lifetime of understanding animals better than people and forgetting that among living creatures on earth, one alone has the capacity for evil. Seal's biography is an illuminating yet troubling tribute. (Fall 2009 Selection)
Publishers Weekly

Vanity Fair contributing editor Seal expands on his August 2006 article for the magazine in this sweeping and atmospheric biography of the conservationist and wildlife filmmaker Joan Root, who was brutally murdered in her home on Lake Naivasha, Kenya, a region she was trying to save from poachers and environmental ruin. Intrigued by Root's suspicious death and cinematic life with husband and nature documentarian Alan Root, Seal mines Joan's diaries and writings to offer a lush love story set in the heyday of British colonialism in Nairobi, where amid the decadence and dilettantism, Alan fell in love with the lovely Joan Thorpe, an "Ingrid Bergman lookalike" and daughter of an English adventurer. Their partnership produced award-winning documentaries (their 1978 film on termite mounds, Mysterious Castles of Clay, was narrated by Orson Welles and nominated for an Oscar) and television specials. Their inability to have children was a source of constant sorrow for the couple, and despite the romance of their joint pursuits, their marriage unraveled. Seal's effort is a seamless story redolent with adventure, passion and heartbreak; its beauty nearly eclipses the tragedy of Root's untimely-and unsolved-death in 2006. Photos. (June)

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Library Journal

Seal, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and a journalist for 34 years, expands on his portrait of British naturalist and filmmaker Joan Root, which appeared in the August 2006 issue of Vanity Fair following her brutal murder at her Kenyan farmhouse. Seal gives us the sad details up front and then leads us, gently and sensitively, through the story of this shy yet remarkable woman. The films she made with husband Alan Root became international hits, and one, Mysterious Castles of Clay, was nominated for an Academy Award in 1978. After her divorce, Joan Root became an ardent conservationist who fought poaching and illegal fishing on Lake Navaisha, a passion that may have led to her death. This is a great story built from many interviews of friends and family and from Root's extensive diaries and letters. What an adventure! What an example! Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, LJ2/1/09; film rights were sold to Julia Roberts.-Ed.]
—Margaret F. Dominy

Kirkus Reviews
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 itsshore. 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.

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Read an Excerpt


She always knew he would come back to her.
He would climb into his helicopter at first light one Nairobi morning
and rise above the screaming madhouse of the city, tilting west over
East Africa’s largest slum, and flying out into wonder: out over the
Great Rift Valley, the cradle of civilization, a three- thousand- mile- long
seam in the earth that stretches from Syria to Mozambique but is at its
most glorious here in Kenya. As the floor of the world dropped away,
opening into endless sky and a breathtaking vista, he would follow this
corridor straight back to her.

There were things she longed to tell him, things only he would understand.
Everything she’d been too shy and self- effacing to say before
would now come pouring out, just as it had in all of the letters she had
written him, letters she never sent:

A lifetime has passed since we split, and yet some memories of
things we did together seem [as if they happened] only the other
day. There is so much I would like to say and share with you—now
I know I am not inferior to you.

She waited for him in her blue house beside the lake, which looked
so perfect and placid from the air. But this was merely another extreme
in a country where great beauty coexists with unimaginable brutality,
where the border between life and death is the thinnest of lines, where
nothing is ever as it seems.

Now in contact with others, I realize how knowledgeable I am
about the natural world. . . . People respect me nowadays. But the
only love of my life is one of the few people I cannot communicate
with, even as a friend.

She could leave all that pain behind as soon as he came back into her
life. Flying over the mountains and dormant volcanoes that form a natural
amphitheater around the lake, he would hover over the emeraldgreen
water, taking in its wide, verdant, wildlife- infested expanse.

When you flew over and saw the blue house you were probably
happy you didn’t live here anymore, but I am really such a different
person, I hardly know myself. I have written you so many letters in
my head but when I try to write I go to pieces.

She imagined him buzzing the house, as playfully as he always had,
then touching down on the grass landing strip and stepping out, as if
returning from only a brief safari instead of half a lifetime. Then at last
she would impress him with her independence and accomplishments
and show him the abiding endurance of her love.

Finally, he did come back to her, flying in with the dawn on January
13, 2006. It was not, however, as she had dreamed for so long. He
hadn’t come to reunite with the woman who had once been his wife,
partner, and best friend, the woman he’d left to live alone in Africa for
sixteen years.

He had come to collect her remains.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Mark Seal has been a journalist for more than thirty years. Currently a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, he has written for many major magazines and served as a collaborator on almost twenty nonfiction books. Although he has written thousands of stories, Seal says none has struck a chord with readers more than the story of the incredible life and brutal death of Joan Root, which he originally reported in the August 2006 issue of Vanity Fair. He lives in Aspen, Colorado.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Wildflower: An Extraordinary Life and Mysterious Death in Africa 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 33 reviews.
OhMercurialMe More than 1 year ago
What an compelling read! I found myself engulfed in its pages, absorbing each and every detail. What an incredible woman, and the adventurous, albeit dangerous, life she lived. As I continued reading the story of this courageous, loving, dedicated, yet unassuming woman, I realized how much I wished that I'd had the privilege of meeting her. What she contributed, along with her former husband Alan, to the conservation of African wildlife shall be her legacy, long remembered. Ms. Root stood for what she believed, and battled til the death to defend it. I thank you Joan Root, from the bottom of my heart, for your selflessness and courage. I'm so grateful to Mark Seal for bringing this story to the rest of the world so that we may get a glimpse of what true love, honor and devotion really looks like. I would and have recommended this book to everyone! Oh, and don't forget the tissues.
Deaconess More than 1 year ago
Joan Root lived an unusual life. She was in a certain place at a certain time. The glimpse into that world is unique and contributed to my understanding of our world. Fascinating reading.
TheReadingWriter More than 1 year ago
I got a picture of a woman, and of a marriage, and of a career filming animals in the wild, but it all felt pieced together and thinly researched. I felt a little of the voyeur, since she was such a beautiful woman and the author seemed more than a little in love with his subject. Perhaps she knew how difficult it was for people to get past her beauty to her accomplishments--she kept herself too tightly wrapped and private for this author to uncover. Still, I would rather have it than nothing at all.
teach23 More than 1 year ago
I picked up this book because I knew Mark's dad. What a great woman Jane Root was. I am so glad Mark decided to write about her life. Great story of Africa and Jane Root's life.
SK-fan More than 1 year ago
I'm not a huge non-fiction lover, but this book was wonderful. It held my attention and I fell in love with the life of the Roots. Joan's quiet manner and love for animals was inspiring. I've heard there may be a movie with Julia Roberts playing the lead. I love Roberts but Joan might be big shoes to fill for even Julia!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Unbelievably beautiful and entertaining, this is the best book I have read in decades. There is a rhythm in the pages like the drumbeat of a faraway tribe, communicating a warning. This biography of Joan Root will change your life and put a human face on the cesspool that Africa is becoming, while never losing sight of the rare beauty she once was. READ IT!
Vanityflair More than 1 year ago
Best book I've read in a long time. I understand so much more about Africa after "meeting" Joan Root. I highly recommend this wonderful book.
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NauAshley More than 1 year ago
Anyone interested in this naturalist and beautiful woman should read this book. The author really did a good job about capturing Joan through her life and you really feel with her through her happy marriage, unhappy divorce, her struggle to save her home and the animals she loved and her wrongful death.
blwertz More than 1 year ago
Mark Seal does an amazing job researching and writing a book about Joan Root, who by all rights should be as well-known as Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey. A story about Joan growning up and living in Africa as a naturalist and a film-maker.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
One morning, Emma Jacobson woke up for school. " Today is the last day of school mom!" Emma said. Once Emma went to sleep last night, she barely slept thinking of what they will do on the last day. Unlike most days, Emma is very slow at her morning routine but tofay she was very fast."Mom I am ready." After Emma had a blast of school, she said her farewells and hoodbyes to her teachers and friends. Then a couple hours later, it was nighttime. Emma went to bed. After she doze off the sleep, she heared a voice that said, " Emma, suffer suffer scream in pain, blood is dripping from your brain!" Emma thought that is was a dream but it woke her up. She heard it again, suffer suffer scream in pain, blood is dripping from your brain." Emma was so scared that she ran downstaired to tell her mom but she was not there. The voice followed her. Emma knew that there were a stranger in the shadows and she never gave up until she finds the stranger in the shadows. THE END