The Orchid Thief, by Susan Orlean

The standard take on creative nonfiction, as promulgated by Lee Gutkind, et al., is that it is a factual narrative (that's the nonfiction part) told using creative writing techniques, a narrative that provides information about a subject while telling a story. This book provides lots of information about Florida's history, Florida's quirky inhabitants, the history of orchid collecting, and some of orchid experts. Where it falls down is that there is no story at the core of the book.

It starts out as a sketch of John Larouche, an odd character who goes from one obsession to another, a narcissist who in his orchid period persuaded two Seminole Native Americans to help him steal wild orchids from Fakahatchee Swamp. They were caught and, despite Larouche's argument that the Seminoles (and their employee) were exempt from laws protecting endangered species and public land, prosecuted.

The only other discernable narrative is the author's desire to see a particular species, a ghost orchid. She wades through swamps and talks to collectors and merchants alike, but always seems to arrive just before or just after her elusive prey has bloomed.

Neither story line is enough to sustain the book. There are too many tangents, chapters full of well-researched information that do not move either story forward. I admit that none of these subjects particularly interests me, but good writers are always able to jump start my curiosity. I just read—fascinated—a ten-page article about the recent history of Cyprus in the London Review of Books simply because Perry Anderson's prose sucked me in and wouldn't let me go.

That didn't happen here.

The book's flap promised that it would help me understand the passion that motivates people to collect things: orchids, whatever. I'd hoped this was true. I don't get collecting. I just don't get it. Sure, I'm as materialistic as the next person and there are sometimes things that I just have to have, whether it's a particular blue and green scarf or a book about Arts and Crafts gardens. But I don't have to have every kind of scarf in the world or every garden book. Not that there's anything wrong with that; it's just not something that I can imagine wanting.

My mother left me an assortment of her tchotchkes. I confess I don't know what to do with them. I can't just give them to the Salvation Army because they are “family” pieces: a teacup made from clay from the family farm, crystal salt dishes handed down from my great-grandmother. I don't want to dust them for the rest of my life, and certainly my kids aren't interested in them. But I can't bring myself to toss them. Someone, generations from now perhaps, may want to touch and hold something of their history. At the same time, they're just stuff. And stuff has always weighed me down. I like emptiness, empty space around me. I'd hoped this book would take me briefly into the mind and heart of someone who wants one of every kind of something, a collector, someone obsessive about things.

That didn't happen either.

The book seems to me like a character study, an essay (the author alludes to an earlier article she wrote on the subject) that someone thought could be expanded into a book. It's well-written. Orlean does a good job of presenting information in a palatable form, and her transitions between sections are very well done. But without a story, the book is hollow at the center. I found it boring.

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