The Forbidden Orchid by Sharon Biggs Waller
Publisher: Viking Children’s
Publishing Date: March 8
Genre: young adult, historical fiction
Staid, responsible Elodie Buchanan is the eldest of ten sisters living in a small English market town in 1861. The girls’ father is a plant hunter, usually off adventuring through the jungles of China.
Then disaster strikes: Mr. Buchanan fails to collect an extremely rare and valuable orchid, meaning that he will be thrown into debtors’ prison and the girls will be sent to the orphanage or the poorhouse. Elodie’s father has one last chance to return to China, find the orchid, and save the family—and this time, thanks to an unforeseen twist of fate, Elodie is going with him. Elodie has never before left her village, but what starts as fear turns to wonder as she adapts to seafaring life aboard the tea clipper The Osprey, and later to the new sights, dangers, and romance of China.
But even if she can find the orchid, how can she find herself now that staid, responsible Elodie has seen how much the world has to offer?
Elodie Buchanan’s father is a plant hunter, which means she only sees him once a year, and nine months later yet another sister is born. While some of the sisters are resentful of Papa — leaving their mother behind with yet another baby to care for in their small English village, one wrapped around a power-hungry deacon’s finger — Elodie can’t help but admire him and all he represents: adventure, beauty, and freedom. But when he does not return home from China and holes up in a tiny flat in Kew, Elodie takes matters into her own hands. If her father does not venture to China once more to gather a rare and valuable orchid before another threatening plant hunter does, the Buchanan women will be sent to the workhouses. It’s up to Elodie to stow away on a clipper ship, witness the aftermath of the China Wars, experience a culture wholly unlike England, and find the orchid before it’s too late.
I’ll admit I had a few concerns before reading Waller’s sophomore novel. First, I adored A Mad, Wicked Folly, and sometimes it’s hard to beat out your own debut. Second, everything that China represented in the 1860s (poverty, opium, just how utterly terrible the English left them) felt unappealing. It’s just not something I want to read about, even though I know about the terrible history. Plus, ugh, another opium story / another girl-dresses-as-a-boy story? Third, as someone who doesn’t know much about plants or gardening, I thought I would find that aspect of it to be a bore.
Let me be the first to tell you that every last scene, sentence, and word was worth it. All the hopes and joys, devastation and heartbreak, beautiful and terrible — all of it was worth it.
Elodie is such a fascinating character. Every visit home her father would bring her books. He believed girls should have proper education just like boys. One Christmas, he brings home Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, and the way Elodie makes sense of it with her faith is encouraging and astounding. One does not negate the other. In fact, she’s able to make science and religion walk hand-in-hand — and the scene with her standing up to her deacon’s ignorance cracked me up. So yes, plants are discussed extensively in here, but it’s just as beautiful to read as it was to read about Vicky and her art. (Plus, also, I had no idea there was such a job as plant hunting. Of course there would be such a job, but that it could be so dangerous, and like a race! Fascinating.) Elodie is frustrated by the freedom a man’s life holds, but she also feels duty-bound to her mother and sisters. That torn feeling is understandably on her mind constantly, but not once did it feel like Waller was projecting 21st-century feminism into a 19th-century mind. I love it when a character stays true to the time!
China is also not romantisized whatsoever, which was a relief. The beauty of the land untouched by war is, of course, observed and appreciated. Elodie learns a lot about Chinese culture through Ching Lan, a girl who joins the expedition to assist with translation and medicinal purposes. The subtle differences between Western and Eastern culture are exposed in such exquisite ways — the concept of honoring one’s family and yet still wanting to be independent and making one’s own choices, the ritual of tea, the way you treat another human to raise their station. But of course, the opium is a huge topic in the book as well. Not a moment of randomly dropping in opium dens just because — there’s a purpose. China was destroyed and the English made these poor people addicted to the drug. It’s prevalent, and it circles back around several times on Elodie’s journey. The meaning behind it only increased the story further.
Finally, the girl-dressed-as-boy bit doesn’t last long. It didn’t feel unnecessary, but that, plus the marriage Elodie had to commit to, didn’t feel forced either. Every second of her situation is a plan gone wrong and her figuring out how to be strong and overcoming it. Her circumstances are less than ideal, but not hopeless. Especially with Alex by her side. He’s always there, but she’s the one doing the thinking, the reacting, the burden of the work. This YA was (blessedly) a Plot A Save the Family, Plot B Self-Discovery & Empowerment, and Plot C Romance. Budding and off to the side, just as Elodie was sorting out her priorities as well.
Waller has convinced me, with this book, that I can read a dark period of history (China Wars) and come out not only knowing so much more (plants, opium, just how tied up women were) but also enjoying the experience of something I was once wary about (adventuring through China for a plant). It’s a cultural, historical journey with a compelling story, a fascinating protagonist, and a complex situation. It was such a joy to read a text so rich and full of life!
Thank you, Sharon, for sending me a galley for review!