A compelling tale of murder and idealism in Kenya

  • Article by: JULIE FOSTER , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 17, 2009 - 3:40 PM

"Wildflower" by Mark Seal

Just three weeks after reading about the murder of Kenyan conservationist and wildlife filmmaker Joan Root, Vanity Fair contributing editor Mark Seal flew to Nairobi to write an article chronicling this remarkable woman's life and death. Seal had not previously heard of Root, but as a journalist with more than 30 years experience, he recognized the components of a compelling story. What he didn't recognize at the time is that this strange, brutal, sad and beautiful story would ultimately take more than three years of his life to write. The result is "Wildflower: An Extraordinary Life and Untimely Death in Africa."

During the 1970s and 1980s, Alan and Joan Root were "the world's greatest filmmakers, mythical figures to nature lovers of all ages." Joan, a legendary Nairobi beauty, preferred playing the quiet, organized helpmate to her more flamboyant husband during their successful filmmaking career. After 28 years of marriage, the couple divorced, and Joan retreated to the home the couple had shared on the shores of Lake Naivasha. The lake, once a pristine paradise, was by 2000 imperiled due to extensive poaching and commercial development around its shoreline.

As the lake's most vocal defender, Joan became a target in a corrupt and increasingly dangerous environment. In January 2006 she was murdered in her home. Her murderers have never been found.

Using extensive portions of Joan's diaries and correspondence, and interviews with the couple's friends and Alan Root, Seal has crafted a vivid and intensely captivating chronicle of fairy-tale lives played out against a once wild and seductive backdrop that is quickly disappearing.

Julie Foster grew up in Iowa and now lives in Sacramento. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

  • WILDFLOWER

    By: Mark Seal.

    Publisher: Random House, 232 pages, $26

    Review: The murder of Joan Root, an outspoken defender of the environment in Kenya, has not been solved. But -- using her diaries and letters, as well as interviews with friends -- Vanity Fair writer Mark Seal has brought her voice back to life.

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