The Lady's Slipper

by Deborah Swift


Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach

The Lady's Slipper by Deborah Swift The Lady's Slipper is a tale of Quakers and a rare lady's slipper orchid, set in the uneasy year following the return of the monarchy to England after Cromwell's Protectorate. The main characters and their situation are fictional. The flower, Cypripedium calceolus, is real and endangered, though in 1660 not as severely endangered as the novel suggests.

Alice Ibbetson practices the genteel trade of painting plants and wildflowers. Richard Wheeler is a former aristocrat and Royalist soldier whose harrowing experiences in the Civil War inspired him to turn Quaker. In the woods on his property grows a lone rarity, a lady's slipper orchid. It is a flower "of strange, almost unearthly appearance," its "pale globe" shining "like Venus," and bearing "tiny stigmata of maroon and pink." Wheeler keeps watch over it, determined it should stay where nature planted it. Alice, trained by her naturalist father in methods of plant propagation, believes she would make the better guardian. One night she creeps out under cover of darkness and steals the orchid, root and all, from under Wheeler's nose. The consequences which spin out from this act are dire beyond any she could have imagined.

Wheeler, a striving but imperfect Quaker, proves a more engaging character than Alice, who comes across as self-centered early in the novel, though she proves more compassionate as the story unfolds. Quakers believed in the equality of all men and women and refused to use the honorific plural "you" when addressing individuals, a quaint practice after "thee," once a condescending term for individuals of lower rank than the speaker, was replaced by the almost universal use of "you." Quakers also renounced violence, an understandable reaction to the Civil War, but a practice that could leave them physically defenseless amid the general brutality of their society. Full of risk and danger, The Lady's Slipper would be more exciting if its main character commanded the reader's sympathy from the beginning. (2010; 436 pages, plus supplementary material including a Historical Perspective and Reading Group Questions)

More about The Lady's Slipper at Powell's Books or Amazon.com

Interview with author Deborah Swift


Cypripedium calceolus, lady's slipper orchid Other novels featuring rare or extinct species:

Lady of the Butterflies by Fiona Mountain (2010), about the woman for whom the Glanville fritillary was named. Review or More info at Powell's Books

The Ever-After Bird by Ann Rinaldi (2007), a YA novel about a girl helping her uncle search for a rare scarlet ibis. More info

People of the Sea by Kathleen O'Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear (1993), about prehistoric Californians while the mammoths were dying out. More info


Nonfiction about the Quaker movement and British orchids:

Walking in the Way of Peace: Quaker Pacifism in the Seventeenth Century by Meredith Baldwin Weddle (2001). More info

The Quakers in English Society, 1655-1725 by Adrian Davies (2000). More info

British Orchids: A Site Guide by Roger Bowmer (2008). More info


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