12/24 I just completed The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean. I discovered this book serendipitously. I think I first came upon the title in a small review of the book in one of those book review magazines you can get at Books a Million. Then, a friend told me of her love of Black Orchid perfume, and I thought the imagery might lead to a good poem or story, so I researched the perfume, then black orchids, then orchids, then orchid hunters. I kept coming upon the title of this book, so I read some more reviews and then ordered it.
I was not disappointed. The book is a wonderful example of creative nonfiction.
Of course, Susan Orlean is a fascinating writer, passionate for and dedicated to her craft. You can read a good bio and review of her writing here: http://www.bookpage.com/0101bp/susan_orlean.html or at her personal website:
The book is captivating. In fact, if I were to ever teach a course in creative nonfiction, I would use this book. There is a prologue with Susan Orlean’s comments on the movie Adaptation and a helpful appendix containing an interview with Susan Orlean, reading group questions, and topics for discussion.
There are other books I would use in this course as well, but I’ll list those in a future entry.
The Orchid Thief is a record of a journey into the history and world of orchid lovers, and into the world of South Florida. Having lived in Naples myself for two years (1980-1982), it was intriguing to revisit so many places through her writing and through her very sharp reporter’s eyes. It is an informative read. Orlean says, “There is a part of me that likes the pedagogical part of writing. I like that challenge of bringing knowledge to readers, material they didn’t know they would actually want to know.” She succeeded. I furiously marked up this book in admiration for her prose and to mark subjects for my own future research.
Often, I have so many regrets as I look back over the years and think about the thirteen different cities I’ve lived in. I regret not seeing things, experiencing more, meeting more people and gathering their stories. I also realized that many of those lost opportunities were due to my ignorance, to my not knowing the facts that would have driven my curiosity to see or experience or take an adventure. Some missed opportunities were due to a tight budget or timing. Some adventures require money, and many require time that work and family responsibilities may prohibit. Some appear with small windows of time that can clamp shut very quickly. If you miss the window, you’ve missed the adventure.
Having said this, the reading of The Orchid Thief reminded me that I did have many adventures in South Florida. I fished in the waters around Key West, visited museums and small menageries, learned about chickee huts, hunted and fished in Golden Gate and the Everglades, killed and skinned my first rattlesnake, saw an alligator wrestler, swam in the ocean and baked on the beach, worked part-time for a plant nursery, learned Spanish, saw Naples’ famous swamp buggie races, gathered stories from Cuban immigrants (some were from the Mariel boat lift—heartbreaking stories), and sampled foods—common there, but I haven’t eaten them since. Perhaps I’ll develop and write about some of these in the future. There were some things I missed though, and one especially bothers me: When I lived there, I never remember looking at a single orchid.
I realize that living in South Florida changed me. I’ve returned there a few times—1990 when I was selling books, 1998 when I won the Ernest Hemingway Short Story competition, and 2000 when I met one of my best friends, Michael, for a wild weekend. Each time I returned, I realized I love everything about the region—including the heat. Susan Orlean says she is not a hot weather person, but I am. I could live there again in a minute. Why don’t I? I’ll have to give that question some thought. I do know that when the Hemingway conference was over in 1998, I almost didn’t get on the plane to return to Monroe.
I would recommend you read The Orchid Thief. Here is the correct bibliographical entry for the book in MLA style in case you ever need it:
Orlean, Susan. The Orchid Thief. New York: Ballantine, 2002.