Book Review: The Overstory by Richard Powers
Winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction
Shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize
New York Times Bestseller
A New York Times Notable Book and a Washington Post, Time, Oprah Magazine, Newsweek, Chicago Tribune, Kirkus Reviews, and Amazon Best Book of the Year
Richard Powers’s twelfth novel unfolds in concentric rings of interlocking fables that range from antebellum New York to the late twentieth-century Timber Wars of the Pacific Northwest and beyond.
When it was first suggested that I read The Overstory, I asked what it was about and was told, “It’s a book about trees.” Indeed it is, but as Richard Power’s epic moves steadily through the last half of the past century on 500-pages (of recycled paper), following nine people and the trees that impact their lives, the phrase “a book about trees” becomes surprisingly more compelling.
A remarkable aspect of The Overstory is how Powers has manipulated the definition of tree in his book so much that when it is described as a “book about trees” it relays the image of a book about beings more ancient and more evolved than our own species; beings that have adapted and changed and lived for longer than nearly any other animal that has walked on the earth; beings that new evidence suggests think and communicate and display even a certain ability for intelligence.
Beings that learn. They are respected precisely because they become characters the reader will root for (pun intended), their personification coming through the eyes of the people they impact.
The book opens at the beginning of the blight that destroyed the American chestnut in the Twentieth Century. There is the Hoel Chestnut, one of the few survivors of the blight, and whose character is revealed through the lens of the immigrants and their descendants who carried its seed to the open plains of Iowa to plant it and unwittingly kept it isolated from the blight as its brethren went extinct. There is a pine grove in the middle of a city which serves as a sanctuary for a woman ignoring a past that was happy before a devastating turn. And then there is Mimas. Mimas—a giant, ancient redwood that becomes the object and mascot of early nineties protests by a fringe group decrying deforestation in the Pacific Northwest. Mimas—a being so old, so immemorable that it is impossible to believe he does not have memory. The character who may make the reader consider the trees in their own backyard a little differently.
That’s the effect he had on me.
After reading the story I began noticing the trees in my own neighborhood; and for the first time in a decade or more, really looking at them. I even went out and bought a field guide on native trees, believing that I owe them the respect of knowing their names if I’m going to pass them every day.
I recognize this makes me sound a bit hippy-dippy (shudder), or like a (*gulp) tree-hugger. But, despite my ridiculous worry on what people might think, I’ve been taking notes and learning their names. It’s been eye-opening and even a little cathartic for the soul in these strange times.
For years I have admired the large, fiery pod bunches and crepe-y flowers that bloom in the spring on a tree about thirty yards down the street…and now I know that tree’s name—Ailanthus. I have also become aware that amongst the row of hackberries crowding the fence in the backyard is a single Chinese Elm, its crown unfolding just above its yard-mates (so high it was nearly impossible for me to identify.) And my favorite discovery has been that of a tree I assumed has no business being where it is. A bald cypress sits on the campus of the local high school, and I always thought they only grew in swamps. I like to imagine the cypress is a mini-Mimas and give its trunk a little pat whenever I’m jogging by.
It is this perspective on the natural world in which The Overstory creates the most impact. The book insists that the reader stop assuming that we are the most highly evolved creatures on earth, and that there may be other forms of life that are highly evolved in ways we have never considered. It tells a story of how a forest becomes less a forest and more a comprising of individuals.
Most importantly it makes an indelible comment on how society is structured and the ongoing tragedy of what we really lose when losing our connection to the natural world. The Overstory even hints at how to get it back, and it might just start by simply naming the tree in the backyard.
Oh, and it won a Pulitzer.