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Wildflower: An Extraordinary Life and Untimely Death in Africa Hardcover – May 26, 2009


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; First Edition edition (May 26, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400067367
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400067367
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.6 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (43 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,235,682 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Book Description
For readers of the bestselling White Mischief and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil--Vanity Fair contributing editor Mark Seal tells the mesmerizing story of the captivating life and shocking death of world-renowned naturalist Joan Root.

From her passion for animals to her storybook love affair to her hard-fought crusade to save Kenya’s beautiful Lake Naivasha, Wildflower is naturalist, filmmaker, and lifelong conservationist Joan Root’s gripping life story--a stunning and moving tale featuring a remarkable modern-day heroine.

After twenty years of spectacular, unparalleled wildlife filmmaking together, Joan and Alan Root divorced and a fascinating woman found her own voice. Renowned journalist Mark Seal offers this breathtaking, culturally relevant portrait of a strong woman discovering herself and fighting for her beliefs before her mysterious and brutal murder. With a cast of characters as wild, wondrous, and unpredictable as Africa itself, Wildflower is a real-life adventure tale set in the world’s fast-disappearing wilderness. Rife with personal revelation, intrigue, corruption, and murder, readers will remember Joan Root’s extraordinary journey long after they turn the last page of this utterly compelling book.


Mark Seal on Wildflower

The report was chillingly brief:

Conservationist Killed
Joan Root, animal lover and conservationist who collaborated with her husband, Alan, on wildlife documentaries in the 1970’s, was killed on Jan. 13 in Naivasha, Kenya. Root was shot to death by assailants who invaded her farmhouse, the police said. Two men were arrested, officials said. One of the couple’s films, Mysterious Castles of Clay, narrated by Orson Welles, showed the inner workings of a termite mound. It was nominated for an Oscar in 1978.

As a contributing editor at Vanity Fair magazine, I am always in search of great stories, and this one seemed to have plenty of the right ingredients: conservationist and wildlife filmmaker, nominated for an Oscar for a film narrated by the legendary Orson Welles, murdered for unknown reasons in Africa.

As soon as I began to research her, I quickly realized that Joan Root wasn’t just another wildlife filmmaker. She and her husband, Alan Root, were, for a time in the 1970s and 1980s, the world’s greatest wildlife filmmakers, mythical figures to nature lovers of all ages. You didn’t merely watch Joan and Alan on television and on flickering classroom screens across Africa and Great Britain, you traveled with them, whether they were sporting with ferocious crocodiles and hippos in exotic lakes, sailing over Mount Kilimanjaro in a hot air balloon, or being chased, mauled, bitten, gored, and stung by every conceivable creature as they drove, flew, ran, and swam across Africa, determined to capture the continent and its wonders on film before this wild world was lost forever. They were pioneers, filming animal behavior without human interference decades before films such as Winged Migration and March of the Penguins were made. Their movies were often narrated by top movie stars, including David Niven, James Mason, and Ian Holm, and in 1967 one of their films had a royal premiere in London, where the couple was presented to the Queen.

They introduced the American zoologist Dian Fossey to the gorillas she would later die trying to save, took Jacqueline Kennedy up in their hot air balloon, and covered much of Africa in their single-engine Cessna and their amphibious car. Then, for reasons the public never really knew, they suddenly vanished from the screen as mysteriously as some of the endangered species they had documented. They separated and later divorced. Alan, the more outspoken of the couple, went on to become a wildlife-filmmaking icon, winner of awards, tributes, and accolades. Meanwhile, blonde, bronzed, beautiful Joan, who was intensely shy and always in the background, both as her husband’s capable backup and the unheralded producer of their films, dropped out of filmmaking altogether, retreating to live alone on 88 acres in Naivasha, Kenya, where she devoted herself to saving the ecologically imperiled lake on which her land stood. It was there, in her bedroom at 1:30 A.M. on January 13, 2006, that she was brutally murdered by assailants with an AK-47 automatic rifle. Screaming in Swahili that they would fill her with so many holes she’d “look like a sieve,” they pumped bullets through the glass and the bars of her bedroom windows until Joan--who, at 69, had become one of the most indomitable conservationists in the world--lay dead in a pool of her own blood.

Within a week of reading the paragraph in the Times Digest, I had an assignment to write an article about Joan Root for Vanity Fair. After landing in Nairobi, I drove 55 miles west to Joan Root’s home on Lake Naivasha for her memorial service.

Thus began a three-year journey into the incredible life--and brutal murder--of Joan Root, a sweet and gentle woman, who rarely spoke above a whisper and had spent decades passionately helping the desperately poor and needy of Kenya. Some, including the police, were convinced that her murder was the result of a simple robbery attempt. But if robbery was the motive, others asked, why was nothing stolen from her house? And why the barrage of bullets, when the threat of one would have persuaded most people in crime-ridden Naivasha or nearby Nairobi (which is known familiarly these days as “Nairobbery”) to surrender their cash? The likely explanation, many of her friends felt, was that Joan had been the target of a contract killing--easily arranged in Kenya for about $100 a hit--because of her conservation activities around the lake.

The article I wrote, which was published in the August 2006 issue of Vanity Fair, was just one more dispatch in the deepening mystery of a fascinating woman. Yet, like the chilling paragraph that had galvanized me in the beginning, the article seemed to make a visceral connection with readers. People would stop me on the street to discuss this indomitable individual. A dozen feature filmmakers expressed interest in obtaining rights to the article. Several publishers urged me to expand it into a book.

Most magazine stories tend to come and go, but this one wouldn’t die after the next issue hit the stands. It seemed to have a life of its own. Working Title Films optioned the rights to the article for a feature film, with Julia Roberts set to co-produce and star as Joan Root, all of which was announced to great fanfare at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, making international headlines. Still, I thought the story was over, at least for me. Joan Root was dead, and because she had rarely expressed her feelings, much less verbalized them, even to her closest friends, most of her personal story was presumably buried with her.

Then something incredible happened. Joan Root began speaking, through hundreds of letters she had written to her mother, and a meticulously kept diary, in which she recorded her activities over the years. With these documents as my source materials, as well as interviews with those who knew, loved and worked with Joan Root, I was able to assemble the incredible story of not only her life, but also the cause she died for, trying to save the land and the animals that she so loved.

Wildflower: An Extraordinary Life and An Untimely Death in Africa is a book I couldn’t have imagined in the beginning of my research: the story of a brave and fearless woman who stood up for what she believed in at whatever cost that stand entailed. --Mark Seal

A Look Inside Wildflower

Click on thumbnails for larger images

Joan Root
Joan with a baby elephant
Joan with an antelope

(Photo © Alan Root)

From Publishers Weekly

Vanity Fair contributing editor Seal expands on his August 2006 article for the magazine in this sweeping and atmospheric biography of the conservationist and wildlife filmmaker Joan Root, who was brutally murdered in her home on Lake Naivasha, Kenya, a region she was trying to save from poachers and environmental ruin. Intrigued by Root's suspicious death and cinematic life with husband and nature documentarian Alan Root, Seal mines Joan's diaries and writings to offer a lush love story set in the heyday of British colonialism in Nairobi, where amid the decadence and dilettantism, Alan fell in love with the lovely Joan Thorpe, an Ingrid Bergman lookalike and daughter of an English adventurer. Their partnership produced award-winning documentaries (their 1978 film on termite mounds, Mysterious Castles of Clay, was narrated by Orson Welles and nominated for an Oscar) and television specials. Their inability to have children was a source of constant sorrow for the couple, and despite the romance of their joint pursuits, their marriage unraveled. Seal's effort is a seamless story redolent with adventure, passion and heartbreak; its beauty nearly eclipses the tragedy of Root's untimely—and unsolved—death in 2006. Photos. (June)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Customer Reviews

I read it all in one day because I couldn't put it down.
Pool Rat
The book tells the story of an amazing woman, her passion for the wildlife and the land of Africa.
Elkie K
In between is a most remarkable story about a most remarkable woman.
Barbara Farrelly

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

49 of 53 people found the following review helpful By Avid Reader on June 11, 2009
Format: Hardcover
What a remarkable woman and a remarkable book. It is amazing that the name Joan Root is not part of the lexicon of environmental activists and extraordinary women like Dian Fossey (who Joan introduced to her beloved gorillas) and Jane Goodall. At its core, the story of Joan Root is a love story. Author Mark Seal superbly recounts how Joan's love for Alan and heartbreak when he left transformed into a deep and consuming love of Lake Naivasha and her fierce defense of the land she called home. A compelling read.
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65 of 78 people found the following review helpful By S. Michael Bowen on June 3, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Three years ago, armed men invaded the Kenyan lakeside home of a 69-year-old woman and shot her dead.
Poachers did it, probably (though no one's been convicted). For decades, Joan Root had been working hard to protect the wildlife around Lake Naivasha. But that meant taking away livelihood of some Kenyan men. She had tried to help them, and they had betrayed her. It was to become a pattern.
In 1960, still a shy schoolgirl, Joan Thorpe had met Alan Root, a daredevil who would never fully grow up. He'd saunter right up to hippos and puff adders for one of his nature documentaries, get himself mangled or bitten, then walk up to them again.
He was flamboyant for the cameras; she enabled his flamboyance. (They introduced Dian Fossey to those mountain gorillas.) He'd chase after lions stalking an impala, and Joan would be in the background, making sure they had enough petrol for the Land Rover.
Alan Root's devil-may-care attitude would lead him to dump Joan for another woman, evidently the Queen of All Possessive Bitches, and then yet another woman. One who could give him babies.
Joan devoted herself to babies of another kind: the aardvarks and wildebeests that pranced across her lakeside estate. She went from being Alan's willing "assistant" to realizing that, throughout their marriage, she had been "too dutiful." You can see why Julia Roberts has optioned the movie rights to this tragedy: self-effacing woman, betrayed by husband and Africans both, gradually self-empowered and fiercely determined to preserve Kenya's beauty right up until she's murdered.
It's a riveting story, but one that Mark Seal bobbles. Some of the problem is that Seal approaches Joan Root through the perspective of Alan.
Read more ›
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21 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Victor Bautista on June 12, 2009
Format: Hardcover
To be honest, I'm normally more of a fiction guy but I picked up this book on a friend's recommendation and now I'm finding it hard to put down. It's an engrossing narrative, researched meticulously, written simply, yet layered with remarkable detail. Well done!
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Raspberry G. on December 28, 2010
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
It's difficult to talk about this book. It tells a story of Joan Root and her husband, what's-his-name. Good Joan, who did all the work of scheduling, booking, arranging, bookkeeping, finding cameras and people to run them, who even let a cobra spit in her eye because what's-his-name told her to, well, she is the woman that just keeps on giving. What's-his-name, a handsome husband who apparently does not appreciate Joan as a person, but only as someone who manages everything and makes life easy for him, creates documentaries about Africa's wild animals. Of course he is the main character in all the footage, but brings Joan in when he needs someone to take a deadly risk, or show a pair of pretty legs. And Joan is doormat enough to do it and keep doing it for years.

Of course as these stories go, handsome what's-his-name casts Joan to the wind as soon as he finds a younger sweetie-pie. Joan hangs on waiting for sweetie-pie to die until Joan, herself, is going grey. After more than a decade of this she finally realizes what's-his-name isn't coming back and decides to stop writing his narratives and doing his paperwork.
She turns her attention and sizable fortune toward saving the nearby lake which is endangered.

Much of the story is well-written, but the writer falls into the trap that many male writers do when they have a female character who is beautiful. He emphasizes the beauty over any intelligence, humanity, specialty or skill the woman may have. I am sure Joan was much more than the lovely-but-lifeless doormat he made of her. Surely at nearly 60 she didn't suddenly spring to life?

The writer provides beautiful narrative, with many excellent descriptions of African scenery. And the story of the Roots is half-way interesting on its own. If you read this book, flesh out your knowledge of Joan by doing a little side research. One person's description is seldom the whole story.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Barbara Farrelly on July 25, 2009
Format: Hardcover
From the outset we know Joan Root, the shy, eccentric British conservationist and Oscar nominated film-maker will, by the end of the book, be murdered in cold blood in her home on the shores of Lake Naivasha in Kenya's Great Rift Valley.
In between is a most remarkable story about a most remarkable woman. It is also the story of Africa's fast disappearing wilderness.
At the Cannes Film Festival in 2006 it was announced that Julia Roberts would play Root in a movie telling the story of her extraordinary life and her brutal death, allegedly a murder carried out in retaliation for her conservation efforts.
The producers said they got the idea for the film after reading a lengthy article in Vanity Fair magazine which writer Mark Seal has since expanded into the book Wildflower. Roberts apparently read the same article and was equally moved by the story of Root's efforts to try to preserve Africa's threatened wildlife.
When the newly married Roots first settle in Lake Naivasha in the mid 1960s it is an unspoiled paradise. Home to masses of exotic animals from gazelles to crested cranes, giraffes to pythons, at night an army of 1,200 hippos rise from the waters to feed. The blue lake house is their headquarters where the adventurous couple come for research, post-production and rest between safaris as they carved out stellar careers pioneering nature documentaries for the BBC.
After a painful divorce, the book tells how Joan Root's 36-hectare home, 88 kilometres west of the capital Nairobi, changes from Garden of Eden to hell on earth as she confronts severe environmental pressures after huge flower farms bought up much of the lakeshore, using the water to irrigate the blooms that are flown out in export to Europe. Slums followed the flowers and violence and poverty threaten to destroy one of the most magical places on earth. One suspects it is already too late.
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