By Richard Powers
W.W. Norton & Company, ISBN: 978-0393356687
Paperback, 512 pages. © 2018
Overstory is a sweeping, heartfelt epic of nine human characters from vastly different backgrounds being drawn together by their love of—and connection to—nature, specifically trees. There’s really no other adequate way to summarize the plot of this book. It’s simply too complex, too interwoven. The passion of author Richard Powers for Nature, and his feelings about what we are doing to it in our own world, shines like the sun through the canopy, illuminating our everyday actions in a totally new way.
The book is written in what feels like an omniscient narrator’s voice, which distances the reader from the internal emotions and sensations of the characters. At first, I didn’t like this aspect of the tale. But as the stories unfurl and begin to intertwine, it felt almost natural. By the end, after Powers’ climax and revelations of where this story was going all along, I understand why he wrote it this way. To have written it from a close third, for nine separate characters, would have distanced the reader from the tenth character of the story—the trees that appear on nearly every page. Only after I’d finished reading did I see the whole picture—the whole forest—and it left me speechless and in awe.
The book is separated into four parts: Root, Trunk, Crown, and Seed. In part one, we are introduced to the human characters, and get most of their backstories. At first, I thought this was a volume of short stories and was, admittedly, disappointed. But as I read further in, I began to see how each one was associated with a specific type of tree. I’m sure there is a reason for these connections, and suspect that the characters themselves had traits in common with their tree in the author’s mind, though I’m not sure what those are. That realization drew me further into the story, made me want to see more. And Powers delivers. Even with the narrative voice—no, especially with the narrative voice—I could see a larger overview of who each one was, and spot the sprouts of their futures later in the book.
Part two, Trunk, brings the characters together, depicting each one’s growth and gives the reader a glimpse of the rings of years that make up each character’s motivations. We’re given strong support to their development as individuals and see how and why they choose to act together in certain ways. While some of the human players remain separate from the others in story space, their actions connect them as much as trees in a forest are connected. It is this part of the story that hooked my heart and dragged me fully into the characters’ lives. And it is this part that left me shaking, tears on my face, at its conclusion. I must admit that when I turned the last page of part two, I felt bereft. I wanted to put the book down and never pick it up again. But the felling of one tree does not kill the forest. I had to read on.
In part three, Crown, the characters pull apart into separate beings, go their own ways. But what has come before in root and trunk affects all growth that follows in sometimes touching, sometimes heart-wrenching ways. Consequences of prior actions follow them all. I watched, captivated, by the unfurling of those leaves. And in part four, Seed, Powers shows what each tree bears. Not all fruits are sweet, and Overstory’s narrative drives home that point in poignant prose. Specific bits leapt off the page to burn themselves in my mind, with significance to my own life and experience that reaches far beyond the pages of any novel. By the end, I sat holding the book, reading back over the final pages again and again, trying to drive home its message so that I would never forget. But I know I’ll read it again. The Overstory is a profound tale that will deepen with each read. Its message will leave readers touched, changed, or at least that is the hope.
Beautifully written, full of passionate prose, The Overstory is powerful and evocative, rich and poignant. Richard Powers’ message is clear, and while the conclusion is dark, it is also filled with seeds of hope. It’s no wonder this book won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction, as well as other awards. I cannot recommend it enough. If you are a lover of Nature, you will want to read The Overstory, with the caveat that sometimes the ending will surprise you, even when it’s exactly what you expected. If you are unschooled in the value or ways of Nature, this should be essential reading. Put it next on “must read” pile.