September 19, 2020

‘Orchid Thief’ novelist: Crises have a recurring presence

Susan Orlean, the keynote speaker for the College’s ‘Hard Times’ year theme, spoke about the Great Depression and popular culture. (Jess Davis / Staff Photographer)

As the U.S. emerges from its longest recession since World War II, the College’s theme for the year, “Hard Times,” encourages students and faculty to examine the societal and personal implications in the wake of national crisis. Keynote speaker Susan Orlean weighed in on the subject on Community Learning Day on Wednesday Oct. 6 on the Kendall Hall Mainstage.

Orlean, a staff writer for The New Yorker and author of four books, including “The Orchid Thief,” the inspiration for the movie, “Adaptation,” starring Nicholas Cage and directed by Spike Jonze, described the cyclical nature of “hard times.” According to Orlean, society is in constant flux between prosperity and depravation. Survivors — both literally and psychologically— of periods deemed deprived, however, develop a resilience and unexpected optimism.

“(Hard times) seem to create people who are extraordinary,” Orlean said.

Orlean encountered a number of “extraordinary” characters while interviewing veterans of the Great Depression generation for her current novel. She identified these individuals during her lecture as the “midwives of the world we live in now,” who’ve allowed hardship to shape, rather than destroy their lives.

Though recessions historically have a recurring presence in society, Orlean said not all “hard times” are created equal.

“There’s something about our hard times that will never compare to the hard times of the Great Depression,” she said.

Fascination with film and the creation of an alternative reality, a “better reality,” Orlean said, reigned supreme in the years of the Great Depression. Heroes of the screen emerged from unforeseen sources, such as Rin Tin Tin — another subject of Orlean’s work-in-progress — a heroic German Shepherd, who, Orlean suggested, was revered more than any human actors would be today. While images of foreign locations — including Canada — were seen as exoctic, she said this form of escape would fail to charm today’s audiences.

“You can Google Earth a snowflake in Alaska,” she said.

This summer, the required reading for incoming freshmen was Nathanael West’s “The Day of the Locust,” which depicts the alienation of many involved in the movie industry during the Great Depression. As much of the country eagerly reads about the missteps of Lindsey Lohan, it’s difficult to imagine a time when the private lives of Hollywood’s early starlets were largely hidden from the public.

“While Nathanael West may have been a downer, I don’t think he was exaggerating in portraying it,” Orlean said.

She also drew from her father’s experience during the Great Depression and the strength he found from his survived struggles. She commented on his wallet, which was enlarged and deformed from containing every credit card available — as a symbol of the success that sprung from the ashes of the Depression.

Following her campus address to a sparse audience, Orlean was joined by Nancy Lasher, assistant business professor, and Robert McGreevy, assistant history professor, for a panel and story telling session in the Library Auditorium. While McGreevy provided historical context, Lasher shared stories about her father, who owned a company that manufactured parachutes during World War II.

The Committee for Cultural and Intellectual Community sponsors a number of events related to the year theme. Beginning Oct. 27, an exhibit featuring sculptures by artist Willie Cole will address “Hard Times.”

Katie Brenzel can be reached at

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