The Overstory by Richard Powers (2018)



When I walked into a charming bookstore in Frisco, CO The Overstory was the main feature of the new display.  I picked it up and while perusing, four different people (clerks and customers), raved about it. “The main character is a tree” and “I’ve read nothing like it before” and “It’s sort of about conservation, but in a unique way” and “be sure to keep track of the characters because eventually they all come together.”

So I grabbed it, took it home, and watched it call to me while I graded end-of-the-year research projects. Turns out, I agree with all of them. It’s kind of two books in one.  The first is a series of unconnected short stories, each with compelling characters: the many generations of Hoels farming and growing chestnut trees; Mimi Ma whose father immigrates from Shanghai to SanFrancisco; Neelay Mehta, an Indian American boy crippled from falling out of a tree, who invents a SimCity-like video game; Patricia Westerford, botanist, who studies trees and their communication.  Those are four of the eight characters who make up the first third of the book, at which point I’m thinking these are all great stories, but now what? The rest of the book is the story (parable?) of how the characters interconnect via trees. Some are tree huggers fighting the loggers, some are tree planters, one fight’s for the legal rights of trees.  Most of them physically connect in the story, and a few remain outside the main story but connect thematically, like Neelay who realizes his addictive video game promotes creation and consumption rather than conservation, so he charts a new path–at the outrage of his game developers and investors.

It sounds confusing, and at times, it left me wondering if I had missed a connection or if some characters simply were not part of the main tree-saving plot, but in the end I realized the point was to look at trees differently.  To look at trees as the complex communicators and givers that they are, to notice not only every tree but every inch that the forest floor contributes, every root that sends a signal, every branch that sends nutrition to each leaf. I cannot imagine the research that Powers had to do–botany, biology, environmentalism, policy, geography to name a few.  While a few details (and perhaps the end) weren’t perfect, this is a colossal work of fiction, science, and art. It’s quite beautiful.

I really enjoyed these two reviews from The New York Times and The Atlantic.   The Guardian, however, published a really negative review.

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