Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Orchid Thief Online Readalong: Week 1

First of all, if you're wondering what the heck is an online readalong, I'll refer you back to this post from last year. Please don't feel in any way pressured by the schedule. That's the beauty of this thing being online.
For the first section of the readalong, we read the first five chapters, or pages 1-85. Two elements really struck me on reading (or re-reading, since I read this book when it was first published back in 1998). The first was Florida and how well Susan Orlean describes it, both the place and its people. "There is something about Florida more seductive and inescapable than almost anywhere I've ever been," she writes. And she notes dryly, when discussing Laroche's court case, that "The state of Florida does incite people." I especially loved this line: "Sometimes I think I've figured out some order in the universe, but then I find myself in Florida, and I have to start all over again."
The second thing that struck me about reading this passage was how this book isn't really about orchids or even about a particular orchid thief. It's about passion, or even obsession. I loved the historical sections about orchid collectors in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when orchids were "a rich and romantic accessory, a polished little captive, a bit of wilderness under glass." Orlean acknowledges that it is this obsession, rather than orchids, that interests her about Laroche and his story. "I don't even especially like orchids," she writes. "What I wanted to see was this thing that people were drawn to in such a singular and powerful way." And while she doesn't feel the passion herself, she finds it fascinating in others: "Collecting can be a sort of love sickness. If you collect living things, you are pursuing something imperfectible, because even if you manage to find and possess the living things you want, there is no guarantee they won't die or change."
The link between these two topics -- Florida and obsession, specifically orchid obsession -- is John Laroche. The book opens with a physical description of him, though I was most taken with the nicknames bestowed on him by his employers in the Seminole Tribe: Troublemaker and Crazy White Man. Laroche himself explains what it's like to be an obsessive: "I'll see something and then suddenly I get that feeling. It's like I can't just have something -- I have to have it and learn about it and grow it and sell it and master it and have a million of it."
Things I'll be thinking about as I read the next section of the book (though you should feel free to comment on any aspect you like): What do we think of Laroche? Do we like him? Does he seem like a real guy? And why is it so important to him that his intelligence is recognized?


  1. I agree Orlean does a great job describing Florida. Books like this make me almost…proud to live here, showing we are so much more than just a tourist destination. Descriptions of the Everglades always amaze me. (I had the same thoughts when reading last year’s One Island book The Last train to Paradise.) I can’t help wondering WHY people choose to go in there! I think at one point Orlean even describes it as the “final frontier” or America (sorry I forgot to note where I read this!)
    I would argue that Orlean does develop a passion or obsession with orchids—maybe not the [physical plant but at least the topic. I was amazed at the amount of research that went into even just the first five chapters from the early lives of the different orchid hunters, to her slogging through the swamp hoping to see the illusive ghost orchid. Reading the chapter “Green Hell” says it all: why would she put herself through that if she weren’t a bit obsessed with orchids?
    My favorite Laroche moment so far is the court scene early in the first chapter. He lists all his credentials than after looking around the court states “Frankly, Your Honor, I’m probably the smartest person I now.” My initial reaction is that I love reading about him but I don’t think I ever want to meet him.

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