Book Review: The Orchid Thief, Susan Orlean

Book Review: The Orchid Thief, Susan Orlean

The Orchid Thief, Susan Orlean

Nonfiction: The Orchid Thief, Susan Orlean

John LaRoche is described by author Susan Orlean as “the most moral amoral person” she’s ever known. When she first met him he was on trial for leading an expedition into the Fakahatchee swamp to collect rare ghost orchids. LaRoche told the judge, “Frankly, Your Honor, I’m probably the smartest person I know.” Orlean’s story on him and his trial led to this book, The Orchid Thief. Orlean crafts a story that could be a novel (and did become a movie) about an eccentric character in a world that seems to breed eccentricity faster than it breeds the very orchids which attract the fascination and obsession of thousands, in a state which is known for its excesses and odd characters.


There was a certain logic to LaRoche’s scheme. Native Americans are allowed to gather endangered species for tribal purposes. LaRoche is not Native American, but he was acting as an agent of the Seminole nation. He worked with three young Seminole members, who did all of the actual work collecting the orchids. LaRoche guided and directed their efforts, but he himself did not even touch the orchids.


Furthermore, his stated goal was to clone the orchids, mass producing them so that they were no longer rare. Thus, the pressure on the wild orchids would be removed, the Seminoles would have a ghost orchid gold mine, the legislature would see they had left a hole in the endangered species act and would fix it, and LaRoche would be the hero who made it all happen. And got rich by making it all happen.


Things didn’t quite go according to plan, but the plan did intrigue Susan Orlean enough to spend months in Florida with LaRoche. During her time there she also got to know many of the names in the South Florida orchid business, and became very familiar with the state itself.


Orlean is a very evocative writer. Her descriptions of wading through the swamp looking for ghost orchids made me want to do two things: go looking for the orchid myself, and go take a shower to wash the grime off. At one point she was so hot that her fingers were sweating. That kind of detail fills the book, giving it a richness that helps you smell the funk of the Fakahatchee, the sweetness of the flowers, the loam of the potting soil in the nurseries she visited. Between the heat and humidity and bugs and water and alligators and snakes and sawgrass and cypress trees and criminals carrying machetes (Orlean confesses she does not like hiking with criminals carrying machetes, even if those machetes are strictly to dissuade snakes from approaching them), Orlean makes multiple valiant efforts to see a ghost orchid in bloom. Frankly, I admire her tenacity. I might have lost my interest somewhere between the bugs and the alligators, long before the machetes.


I kept my phone beside me as I read so I could look up the different orchids and bromeliads she describes in the book, and I’m glad I did. Her descriptions are vivid, but I do wish The Orchid Thief came with full-color photos. No doubt that would have made it cost prohibitive, but it still would have been a nice addition to the text. I recommend doing something similar when you read it, and I hope you do read it. Orlean is a wonderful writer, and The Orchid Thief is a wonderful book.

See similar topic: Book Review: Tulipomania, Mike Dash

See by the same author: Book Review: The Library, Susan Orlean

The Orchid Thief, Susan Orlean

Book Review: The Orchid Thief, Susan Orlean

Book Review: The Library Book, Susan Orlean

Book Review: The Library Book, Susan Orlean

The Library Book, Susan Orlean

Nonfiction: The Library Book, Susan Orlean

I read The Library Book without knowing a lot about it. For instance, I had no idea that author Susan Orlean was such a wonderful observer of humanity. She describes a patron in “one of the carrels in history, a man in a pin-striped suit who had books on his desk but wasn’t reading held a bag of Doritos under the lip of the table. He pretended to muffle a cough each time he ate a chip.”


I did not realize how passionate she was for libraries in general. She describes them as “a gathering pool of narratives and of the people who come to find them. It is where we can glimpse immortality, in the library, we can live forever.”


The Library Book focuses on a singular event in the life of one library. The 1986 fire in the main branch of the Los Angeles Public Library destroyed literally millions of books, microfiche, photographs, magazines, and other documents and records. Much of the damage was irreplaceable. The event itself did not get the national publicity warranted for a simple reason: it occurred on the same day as the Chernobyl nuclear accident. Still, it was the largest library fire in US history.


Orlean spends a lot of time looking at the possible cause of the fire, the effects, the aftermath, and the person ultimately blamed for starting the fire (he was never formally charged due to a lack of evidence). But she also looks at the history of the library and of libraries in general, and brings the story to the present and the future of libraries.


I cannot tell you how much I love this book. I am a sucker for libraries, and the library branch she mentions early in the book, Studio City, is very few miles from the North Hollywood branch we patronized during our brief sojourn in Los Angeles. Even though we lived in LA while they were rebuilding the main branch after the fire, I do not recall being fully aware of the devastation of the fire, so this book taught me a lot about a library in a town I lived in during the time frame when I lived there.


More than libraries, though, I am a sucker for a great book. This is a wonderful, amazing book. Susan Orlean’s choice of characters, her spot-on descriptions, and her engaging storytelling style makes this read more like a novel than a nonfiction narrative. I could read this book again and again, and probably get more out of it each time I started.


Some of the characters are the leaders of the LA Public Library. One of the leaders literally walked to Los Angeles from Ohio! After becoming the head of the library, he became known for his passionate advocacy for the library, his zeal in expanding the library’s collection and services…and his messy affairs which led to his divorce. In the early 1900s, this made news headlines, even in LA. A future librarian was so keen on reading that she advised people to fib their way out of social engagements so they could instead stay home and read a novel in a single gulp “like a boa constrictor.”


Apparently in Senegal the polite way to refer to someone’s passing is to say, “his or her library has burned.” Their stories have ended, their chapters are closed. What a beautiful and appropriate metaphor! The Library Book is full of bon mots like that. Not many nonfiction books can make you laugh and cry and sigh and feel better about life after reading them. Susan Orlean has accomplished all of that and more.




We of LOVE libraries, especially our local library, Almost every book we’ve reviewed has been borrowed from Schlow and is part of their collection. Like every library we’ve ever visited, they have helpful friendly people, they know almost everything, and they can put their hands on any book you would ever need or want.


Read more books about books and libraries:

Booklist: Books about Books for Shared Reading with Children

Booklist: Books about Libraries for Shared Reading with Children

Book Review: Summer Hours at the Robbers Library, Sue Halpern

Book Series Review: The Invisible Library, Genevieve Cogman 

Book Review: The Mortal Word, Book 5 of The Invisible Library Series, Genevieve Cogman

Book Review: The Library Book, Susan Orlean

Quote: The only thing you absolutely have to know, is the location of the library. Albert Einstein

Quote: Whatever the cost of our libraries, the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation. Walter Cronkite

Quote: Without libraries what have we? We have no past and no future. Ray Bradbury

Quote: At the moment that we persuade a child, any child, to cross that threshold, that magic threshold into a library, we change their lives forever, for the better. It’s an enormous force for good. Barack Obama


The Library Book, Susan Orlean

Book Review: The Library Book, Susan Orlean