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The Overstory

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Goodreads Choice Award
Nominee for Best Fiction (2018)
The Overstory is a sweeping, impassioned work of activism and resistance that is also a stunning evocation of - and paean to - the natural world. From the roots to the crown and back to the seeds, 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. There is a world alongside ours—vast, slow, interconnected, resourceful, magnificently inventive, and almost invisible to us. This is the story of a handful of people who learn how to see that world and who are drawn up into its unfolding catastrophe.

A New York Times Bestseller.

502 pages, Paperback

First published April 3, 2018

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About the author

Richard Powers

298 books4,472 followers
Richard Powers has published thirteen novels. He is a MacArthur Fellow and received the National Book Award. His most recent book, The Overstory, won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. He lives in the Great Smoky Mountains.

Librarian note: There is more than one author with this name in the Goodreads database.

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5 stars
65,627 (44%)
4 stars
48,093 (32%)
3 stars
24,679 (16%)
2 stars
7,583 (5%)
1 star
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 20,367 reviews
Profile Image for Lisa.
991 reviews3,321 followers
November 7, 2020
To hope, which finds roots in the most infertile of soils! Cheers, my friends on our shared planet!

I sit in silence, holding the paperback copy of The Overstory in my hands, thinking of trees.

Wondering which trees grew to become the books on my shelves. Wondering which ones became the cherry tree desk my grandfather made for me. Wondering how old the oak trees were that turned into the logs that made it into my wooden house, to turn into beloved bookshelves. I wonder at the kind of trees that frame my paintings. That give my brushes shape. I even have jewellery made of wood. And Swedish butter knives. And art.

My fence is made of wood, and my garden holds an oak tree, an acorn, three apple trees, plum trees, three cherry trees (plus a baby cherry trying to make it), AND my garden holds a three-year-old chestnut experiment.

My daughter and I collected chestnuts one autumn and put some of them into a corner of our garden. The following year, we saw a few single sticks with a leaf each coming out of the soil.

Then we had five or six leaves on each of the three tiny chestnut trees - growing in slow motion (human time perception). This year, I have already checked that they are still alive, and I can see there will be more leaves. Will they survive?

I don't know, but I took a picture, imagining while I did so that I was Nick, owner of a family's collected photographic memory of a chestnut tree planted where they usually do not grow. And I felt it made such perfect sense - my tiny gardening project connected to my vast reading life, growing side by side as long as I am around to think and feel.

"What do stories do?" This is what one character asks at a crossroads. "They kill us a bit and make us change."

And that is precisely what happened to me while I read The Overstory. Filled with the pain of the world's development in recent decades, I had grown ready for this book. I would not have had patience ten years ago to follow from roots over trunk to canopy and seeds the stories of people who see what others choose to ignore: that humanity is using up the resources of its own habitat at a speed that nature can't cope with, and that we are unlikely to stop the trend because stopping it means destroying our most cherished religion: the belief in growth and ownership. "We're cashing in a billion years of planetary savings bonds and blowing it on assorted bling".

What to do if we see this happening, and if we don't want to see the world change from diversity to monoculture, from natural life to surviving in an adverse and hostile habitat? I am as guilty of what the psychologist character in the book calls the bystander effect as anyone else. I know we must change our ways to make our planet a sustainable home, but I am unable to break the patterns I was raised and taught to take for granted. Reducing meat intake and plane rides is not enough. We must learn to think beyond commercial benefit and growth of assets if we want to have a future that can remember us.

This book is amazing, like a Tree Of Life! It grew out of the need to verbalise the imminent threat to our species and its unique ability to LOVE nature in all its forms.

Read it. Pulitzer redeemed for as long as it takes a tree to grow!
Profile Image for Hannah Greendale.
701 reviews3,348 followers
March 30, 2020
Richard Powers’ structural approach to The Overstory breaks with traditional plotting. The result is two books in one, each designed to appeal to a different type of reader. The flaw in this approach is that the book either reads like a literary triumph that starts slow then builds to something satiating, or it reads like a bait-and-switch with a breathtaking start followed by a wearisome and long-winded trek to the conclusion.

Part 1 (called “Roots”) reads like a magnificent short story collection. The backstory and exposition that would normally be woven throughout a book is delivered in several rousing anecdotes. Nine protagonists are introduced, their stories ranging from sweeping multi-generational sagas to brief glimpses into their private lives. These characters remain separate in “Roots,” yet their stories are united by meaningful interaction with trees. Each of their stories arrives at an arresting climax before Powers hits the pause button.

“Roots” will likely appeal to fans of 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster or The Sport of Kings by C. E. Morgan. The remaining three-fourths of the book, however, are something else entirely.

Parts 2 through 4 (called “Trunk,” “Crown,” and “Seed,” respectively) sees these nine characters being inextricably drawn together. Their lives entangle, their shared interests and unique experiences with trees drive their actions. This portion of the book is arguably slower, with fewer revelations about the characters and more attention dedicated to exploring themes. Powers pulls back the curtain to introduce trees as a tenth character and forces us to examine our role in, and relationship to, nature.

All ten characters share similar beliefs, fight for the same causes, face the same external conflict (while wrestling with minimal or no internal conflict), and everyone gets along. It’s a startling contrast to the first part of the book; a harrowing and captivating intro that promises heartbreak and drama, followed by a stagnant alternative book in which the captivating backstories have very little bearing on the overall narrative.

At times, Powers’ writing is as beautiful and wondrous as nature, and his messages about activism and resistance are poignant but, ultimately, his execution is uneven and the final product is a book bloated with redundant characters.
The bends in the alders speak of long-ago disasters. Spikes of pale chinquapin flowers shake down their pollen; soon they will turn into spiny fruits. Poplars repeat the wind's gossip. Persimmons and walnuts set out their bribes and rowans their blood-red clusters. Ancient oaks wave prophecies of future weather. The several hundred kinds of hawthorn laugh at the single name their forced to share.
Profile Image for Roxane.
Author 120 books159k followers
June 21, 2019
This book has an interesting structure and it is well-written. I get what Powers is going for conceptually. The character sketches, which read like short stories are wonderful. But then the book gets... less engaging, shall we say. I stopped reading it because I just could not read one more passage of florid description about trees or visions or highways. I couldn't do it. But if you love trees, this is a good book for you. I get why it won the Pulitzer.
Profile Image for Neil.
1,007 reviews651 followers
September 22, 2018
Further Update. I can't help it: Powers' writing does something to me. I've now finished a re-read of this book and I am going back to 5 stars. It's a book that really rewards a second reading. It is much darker than I remember from first read (suicide, disillusionment, betrayal on top of the destruction of the natural world) and also much more emotional. The latter of those two surprised me because I thought that knowing the story would reduce the emotional impact, but the reverse happened.

I loved all the comparisons of speed (humans, the natural world, computers) and I got a lot more out of Neelay's story this time through.

So, whilst I can understand the criticisms some have made, I'm choosing to ignore those bits and take the novel as a whole which is, I think, required reading.


Update: on reflection, I got a bit excited about having a new Richard Powers book to read and I have definitely, despite what I say below, read better books this year. Consequently, my rating has dropped to 4 stars. There is also the fact that Powers himself has written several books better than this one.


Two quotes from different parts of this book:

"The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story."


"Yes! And what do all good stories do?" There are no takers. Neelay holds up his arms and extends his palms in the oddest gesture. In another moment, leaves will grow from his fingers. Birds will come and nest in them. "They kill you a little. They turn you into something you weren’t."

I should come clean at the start of this review. Richard Powers is my favourite author. I have read all his previous novels and have been desperate to read this one ever since I first heard about it a few months ago. I am grateful to the publisher, via NetGalley, for the opportunity to read an ARC a couple of months prior to publication date.

The overstory is the name given to the part of a forest that protrudes above the canopy. When you look at a rainforest, for example, what you see from above is the canopy with trees standing out above it. What you don’t see unless you get into the rainforest is the understory that sits below the canopy but above the ground, then the shrub layer below that and, finally, the forest floor.

It is clear from page 1 of this book that the trees will be the stars of the show. Repeatedly, they are referred to as "the most wondrous products of four billion years of creation" and the book is shot through with the most astonishing and mind-blowing information about trees. In particular, the book tells us a lot about how and what trees communicate with each other. For example, when a tree comes under threat from an insect of some kind, it tells its neighbours who respond by releasing insecticide to protect themselves. In a large forest, many trees whose roots meet actually meld their root systems together making the whole forest an interconnected network where the trees nurture their young and heal their wounded. Not so long ago, all this was the stuff of ridicule, but today a lot of it has been demonstrated and more is being discovered all the time.

What Richard Powers wants his readers to realise is what this means for humanity. He wants us to realise how important trees are for the world. And he chooses to do this not with a text book but with a story.

His story is structured like a tree. The first 150 pages consist of the "Roots". These are 8 apparently independent short stories giving us the back story for 9 different people. One, for example, tells us the family history of a some immigrants into America (mid-1800s) ending with an artist in recent times who inherits the family collection of photographs all of the same chestnut tree taking at monthly intervals over generations. In another, a hearing and speech impaired scientist discovers that trees are communicating with each other. The unifying theme across all the stories is the presence of trees. And it is worth noting those trees because, as many people know, trees have huge mythical and symbolic meanings and the trees Powers chooses for each of his characters are not random selections.

The next 200 pages are "Trunk". Here the stories of the individuals that we now know quite well start to merge and connect. Some merge completely, others connect tangentially. This passage is overtly political. Don’t expect an unbiased overview: this is an impassioned plea for the protection of trees set in the form of a story. It is an attempt to make readers realise how temporary humans are in the grand scheme of things…

"But people have no idea what time is. They think it’s a line, spinning out from three seconds behind them, then vanishing just as fast into the three seconds of fog just ahead. They can’t see that time is one spreading ring wrapped around another, outward and outward until the thinnest skin of Now depends for its being on the enormous mass of everything that has already died."

…and how much more permanent trees are…

"Out in the yard, all around the house, the things they’ve planted in years gone by are making significance, making meaning, as easily as they make sugar and wood from nothing, from air, and sun, and rain. But the humans hear nothing."

Then we have 120 pages called "Crown" where the stories separate after a dramatic climax to Trunk, but remain connected, branching out in different directions.

Then, finally, "Seeds" tells us some of the outcomes of the stories and leaves us poised for the next steps in others. It includes a plea for us to look at things differently.

"The planet’s lungs will be ripped out. And the law will let this happen, because harm was never imminent enough. Imminent, at the speed of people, is too late. The law must judge imminent at the speed of trees."

I think this is perhaps one of Powers' most accessible novels. It feels to me, fresh from finishing it, like his most passionate one. Yes, there is some science, but a lot of it is explained carefully. This novel does not require the scientific background that some of Powers' novels have asked the reader for. And there is no music in this book, which is the other thing that Powers often includes in his novels and often does so in a fairly technical way. This one is, by contrast, far more emotional: it feels like a book Powers has written because he wants, as the quote at the start of this review says, to change people’s minds. In my case, he is perhaps preaching to the converted because I am already a believer in conservation and already convinced of the importance of trees. Even so, this book taught me many things and fired up a stronger passion in me for the natural world. I have to hope that others will read it and become equally convinced of the need for intelligent conservation work.

I know I am biased because of my love for all of Powers’ novels, but I think it is possible I have now, even only in January, read my favourite book of 2018.
Profile Image for Justin Tate.
Author 7 books962 followers
August 31, 2020
Sequoia National Park

The Overstory is part short stories, part tree porn, part rant, and part ramble. It adds up to an impressive literary achievement that will linger with me for a long time, even while the reading experience is generally tedious. At times the characters are intriguing, at least once does plot play a role, and there’s even a fleeting moment of tension. In other words, if you only enjoy edge-of-your-seat thrillers--this isn’t your book. If you’re obsessed with trees, it might be.

I’m by all means a bonafide tree hugger. Literally and figuratively. As seen above, this is me hugging a giant sequoia at Sequoia National Park. When characters in this book stage a protest by sitting high in California Redwoods to prevent them from being cut down, it’s easy to picture the scene. My heart breaks at the mere thought of chopping down these landmarks. Still, the book is hard to get into. I don’t think I ever picked it up with joy or a desire to find out what happens next.

That’s not entirely true. During the first 150 pages, which is basically a standalone collection of short stories, Powers introduces characters who are all significantly impacted by trees. The trees linger in the background, seemingly insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but suddenly they are the whole world. Though there’s no hook or inciting incident in these pages, it works. The theme that trees are integral to human life repeats throughout, but never so well as these slice of life chapters.

Sequoia National Park

As the book progresses, it becomes clear the author--or publisher--wanted this to be a novel and not a collection of short stories. There’s a refrain about hearing the voice of trees, which I don’t disagree with but comes across hokey, and one of the characters gets jail time. It’s all a bit forced to be honest.

The Overstory succeeds, however, by staying on message. Whether or not the plot points (if you can call them that) make any narrative sense, one thing is consistent--a love for trees, a warning to those who disregard them, and a tutorial on how to recognize their significance. These aspects in particular are worthy of admiration. If you can write a book that significantly alters a person’s worldview, it’s an incredible book. I don’t care how boring it is. And even me, tree-hugging me, cannot look at trees in the same way. I’ve always recognized their beauty, their subtle--and overt--impact on my life, but I don’t know that I’ve ever heard their voice. Now, perhaps, I can.
Profile Image for Rachel.
550 reviews922 followers
October 5, 2018
The Overstory is undeniably brilliant, but it's also hard work, and I'm not convinced the payoff was worth the effort. I wanted to be able to say that I was so struck by Powers' genius that I was able to forgive the periods of abject tedium that characterized my reading experience, but that would be a lie. This is undoubtedly a fantastic book, but I don't think I was the right reader for it.

Here I have to echo a sentiment that I expressed in my review of Lab Girl by Hope Jahren: there are only so many loving descriptions of trees a person can take after a while. What I'm interested in when I read is conflict and human interest and interpersonal dynamics, and when none of that is at the forefront of a book, I'm inevitably going to struggle with it.

While Richard Powers did create a host of distinct characters in The Overstory - the first section of the novel is eight different short stories, one following each of the main characters through defining moments in their early lives - it soon becomes apparent that their stories aren't the ones that Powers is interested in telling. I had more than a few moments when I had to wonder why Powers chose to write this as a novel at all, when it would have arguably served its purpose just as well as a treatise on environmental activism.

Powers is a hell of a writer though, I'll give him that. I can't bear to go lower than 3 stars in my final rating because I can't deny the admiration I feel toward Powers' craft. On a sentence-by-sentence level, I lost track of the amount of times I paused and reread a particularly striking passage, and the amount of detail that Powers is able to pack into every page is incredibly impressive. And on a larger level, the thematic complexity that Powers is able to achieve with his anthropomorphic symbolism and thorough examination of disparate disciplines and philosophies is undeniable. When words like 'epic' and 'masterpiece' are being thrown around in conversation with this novel, it's not difficult to understand why.

But at the same time, I'm just not convinced that it was all necessary. I don't believe that this book is able to justify its length of 500 (very long) pages. It's punishingly dense and bloated; I found certain characters to be extraneous and a lot of the detail to be superfluous. But it's also punctuated by moments of such beauty that make it a worthwhile read, and I wouldn't be surprised at all if this wins the Man Booker, but on a personal level, I can't say this was my favorite reading experience I've ever had.
Profile Image for Paula K .
435 reviews417 followers
April 17, 2019
Shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2018, The Overstory is a brilliant and passionate book about humans and their relationship to trees and the natural environment.

The first half of the book is exceptional. Written like short stories, 9 characters are introduced separately with their tree story. Each story has an event that has happened to change the life of the character by the tree or trees that shaped them. The stories are phenomenal.

The second half of the book is about these same characters being drawn together to fight the cause of saving trees. Environmental activism is the center of this part of the book and it’s fight against logging companies who are destroying the American forests.

Richard Powers shows such compassion and enthusiasm throughout his book. However, I found the second half to be too long. Some editing would have gone a long way. His book is 500 pages long and not an easy one to get through. It is well researched and very thought provoking, however. A book that won’t leave the reader for a long time.

4 out of 5 stars
Profile Image for Always Pouting.
575 reviews761 followers
March 2, 2022
I'm actually not quite sure how I felt about this one but also spoilers are going to follow before anyone gets angry at me.

The book starts out by telling what are seemingly separate stories about a variety of characters, so at first I thought it was just going to be a collection of short stories. That felt sort of confusing though because we met about 9 or 10 characters in like the first 100-150 pages and the book itself is 500 pages; I just thought to myself is this a collection of 50 short stories. Eventually though the stories seem to converge together.

When the stories come together though there are still a few characters who don't directly interact, or when they do it's in a very brief way. There's also a lot of ambiguity through out the book on a few things. For one thing it's implied that Olivia is Ray and Dorothy's daughter but they are supposedly childless. Eventually it's also implied that the chestnut tree in their backyard is their daughter so perhaps Olivia is a human avatar for the tree itself. There was also this implication that Patricia commits suicide when she's speaking at the conference but there's never any kind of confirmation of the fact. There's also a convergence of three characters at that point in the story with Neelay and Mimi both attending the conference. It made that whole plot point sort of confusing because both seem to anticipate that Patricia is about to commit suicide.

I think the book alternates between being clear and easy to follow and then lapsing into ambiguity and it can make it hard to tell what is happening at times. I think the descriptive language just makes it even harder sometimes to follow along. I think it also covers a lot of themes that made it feel like the book itself was all over the place. I felt like we could have done without Neelay's storyline for sure at the very least even if I understand what Power's was trying to do with it.

I did really enjoy the writing and the structure of the story. I thought it was really cool how things unfolded and came together. It felt very in line with the idea of branching that was brought up again and again through out the book. Sometimes the book felt really obvious though and I feel like it could have been stronger if it alluded to things sometimes instead of spelling it out every time. I think it might also be a little hard to read passage upon passage describing trees endlessly.

Overall I enjoyed the book, especially the writing and the novelty of the structure and storyline. I liked the way there was repetition on certain themes and we saw a reoccurrence of sentences/passages through out. I did think it could've been stronger if it was edited down to take out Neelay's part of the story though because that felt like the weakest part of the storyline to me personally.
Profile Image for Trudie.
544 reviews582 followers
August 15, 2018
Another hour. Deserts of infinite boredom punctuated by peaks of freakish intensity

Powers doing my review writing for me.

My reading experience of The Overstory often felt like a forced march of The Appalachian Trail while being read poetry. In all likelihood that might appeal to some people, however I prefer a less arduous journey. I tried to escape this book once, flinging it aside at around page 60 but several positive reviews from trusty readers and the growing likelihood that this will make the MB shortlist made me put my hiking boots back on.

This is not my first rodeo with Richard Powers. I read his 2014 shortlisted book Orfeo a novel that deep dives into molecular biology and classical music and combines them in grand esoteric passages that at times seem barely penetrable. Despite this I ended up admiring Orfeo. I had hoped for something similar to occur with this book, particularly as I admire books that find ways to incorporate the hard sciences. Unfortunately, I came away from this wondering if I might have been better served reading Wohlleben's Secret life of trees .

I am aware Powers has a degree in Physics as well as literature and that becomes obvious in sentences like these :

Ten million points flicker in the falling dark, like logic gates of a circuit cranking out solutions to a calculation generations in the making.

Through the armored arch behind the checkpoint, a cell-subtended hallway disappears lengthwise down an optical illusion into forever.

I do admire him for attempting to mesh these disciplines but it makes for a grandiose writing style and a sometimes odd juxtaposition of disciplines. These being not limited to - dendrology, ecology, eco-warfare, computer science, psychology, mythology, poetry, evolution, and taxonomy. This often verges on information dumping and threatens to lose sight of the fact this is suppose to be a novel.

My other major concern with this book was the understandable but ultimately unhelpful craze to anthropomorphise scientific research. Wohlleben's book has garnered much attention but it is far from accepted doctrine to talk of complex tree networks as if they have intention and consciousness. Powers leans heavily upon this, trees "bleed" sap, they have plans to travel north, they communicate intention with each other, they would talk to us if only we were listening. Certainly there is scientific evidence to support communication and symbiotic relationships and much else interesting besides. But it seems to me a fallacy to try to view these findings through a lens of human behaviour. Is that not an egregious form of egotism on our part?

There are far better reviews available that discuss the ecological themes of this book, its' unusual structure, the characters and why Powers might win a place on the Man Booker shortlist. However, I personally subscribe to the opinion that Annie Proulx did this type of book much better with Barkskins. Proulx has a warmth and knack with characters that I think is lacking in The Overstory and I walked away from it with a much greater sense of the epic scope of ecological crisis.

However, it is impossible to spend what ended up being almost two weeks with this book and not find some glimpses of brilliance. I am left with a strong sense of having traveled through some delightful arboretum where tree giants are whispering just out of ear shot. Much like hiking the Appalachian Trial might feel like days of misery and toil for one or two moments of transcendental bliss so goes the experience of reading The Overstory . A slog then but not without occasional rewards.

Leaving you with the oh so wise Dr Patricia Westerfold -

She could tell them about a simple machine needing no fuel and little maintenance, one that steadily sequesters carbon, enriches the soil, cools the ground, scrubs the air, scales easily to any size. A tech that copies itself and even drops food for free. A device so beautiful it’s the stuff of poems. If forests were patentable she’d get an ovation
Profile Image for Paromjit.
2,705 reviews25k followers
April 17, 2019
This has won the Pulitzer Prize!!

Richard Powers writes with ambition, passion and reverence on the world of trees, their ancient
intelligence and their central place in the fragile ecosystem. This is a dense and epic work of environmental fiction, a picture of the state of our planet and how humanity has contributed to its degradation. Whilst the over riding central character of this are trees, he interweaves the stories of the lives of 9 disparate individuals, within a four part structure of Roots, Trunk, Crown and Seeds. The stories of the 9 people appear to be isolated but interlinked with their varying connections to trees and their growing contribution in their efforts to prevent the destruction of forests and woods. Powers immerses us in the world of trees, so wondrous, coming at the theme from multiple perspectives, packed with elements of science and a dollop of magical realism.

This is not a perfect or an easy read, there are occasions when Powers just cannot help himself from over egging the narrative with his heavy handed need to hammer home the same points a little too assiduously. However, this powerful paean to the treasure that are trees and nature, highlights one of the most important issues in our contemporary world, the state of the planet that our younger and future generations are set to inherit. People have failed to see the wood for the trees, thereby underlining our inability to intuit the place of humans amidst the wider ecosystems of the Earth we rely on to live and survive. This is an elegaic, extraordinary, and emotive read, if faintly exasperating at times, a critically important novel for our times on the issues surrounding sustainability. Many thanks to Random House Vintage.
Profile Image for Ron Charles.
1,049 reviews48.7k followers
April 3, 2018
Richard Powers’s “The Overstory” soars up through the canopy of American literature and remakes the landscape of environmental fiction.

Long celebrated for his compelling, cerebral books, Powers demonstrates a remarkable ability to tell dramatic, emotionally involving stories while delving into subjects many readers would otherwise find arcane. He’s written about genetics, pharmaceuticals, artificial intelligence, music and photography. In 2006, his novel about neurology, “The Echo Maker,” won a National Book Award. And now he’s turned his attention, more fully than ever before, to our imperiled biome and particularly to the world’s oldest, grandest life-forms: trees.

“The Overstory” moves the way an open field evolves into a thick forest: slowly, then inevitably. For a while, its various stories develop independently, and it’s not apparent that they have anything to do with one another. But have faith in this world-maker. Powers is working through tree-history, not human-history, and the effect is like a time-lapse video. Soon enough his disparate characters set out branches that touch and mingle: Before the Civil War, a Norwegian immigrant travels to Iowa and begins homesteading in the largely empty new. . . .

To read the rest of this review, go to The Washington Post:
Profile Image for Beata.
749 reviews1,153 followers
January 1, 2019
Having bought this book months ago, I started wondering if I spent my money well. Although I enjoy making my own mind regarding my reading choices, I couldn’t escape coming across many reviews, both positive and negative, as a result, I was a little apprehensive … When I began reading, I thought it’d take me many weeks to get through this novel, however, it turned out to be a compulsive reading for me. Different characters, different stories, one theme: trees. I love forests, parks and try hard to save trees in my neighbourhood, but this novel added a new dimension to my perception of the lives of trees. I’d never read environmental fiction before, and for me this book is powerful. As a reader, I received what I expected to receive from a good book: story and narration that engaged me.
Profile Image for Andy Marr.
Author 3 books774 followers
November 20, 2022
I feel a little guilty giving this four stars. Based on its message and the quality of its writing, it certainly deserves the full five. But, good lord, it was long; a 350-page novel stretched out into 502 small-typed pages. It's not that words were wasted, as such - there was repitition, but this was obviously intentional and cleverly used. I just don't think that all of its six inter-connecting stories were really necessary. This was particularly true of Neelay, whose own story connected only very loosely with the others and would have been better left on the cutting-room floor.

A second problem I found had to do with occasional unanswered questions. For example, there was, I think, a suggestion that one central character, Olivia, was the daughter of two others, Ray and Dorothy, despite the book's continued assertion that the couple was childless. I've read other reviews that also suggested this, but have struggled to find any official synopses that confirmed this assertion. As such, I wonder if it's just one of the many accidental conclusions that can be drawn from this unintentionally ambiguous and confused plot...
Profile Image for Shelley Ettinger.
Author 2 books31 followers
May 10, 2018
Well. A long rant has been percolating in my head while I read this overpraised novel by a writer I try over and over and whose work over and over fails to wow me, which is putting it kindly. Lately I've read a number of the 'what to do about great men/geniuses who are also sexual assaulters' think pieces that have been proliferating and what throws me each time is that the artists cited are in reality not a single one of them great, let alone a genius. See for instance Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, David Foster Wallace and so on, none of whose work deserves anything close to the adulation it gets. And no I'm not associating Powers with those accused of misogynist behavior (though who knows, such a revelation about any given man cannot be a surprise at this point). I am however associating him with the long list of white men assigned greatness status when they nowhere near deserve it. What a low bar they have to leap.

There's some good writing here, yes. The theme is of course important, yes, and there's important information shared here, yes. That's about all this novel has going for it. As with every single other of his books I've read, and despite the overabundant effort in this one at conjuring up some, somehow there's no real passion here. As with other of his books, this one never made me feel anything, neither about the urgent matters he's addressing about which I do yes feel a great deal but his writing didn't tap in to even my already existing feelings, nor, most definitely, about the characters who for all his very visible efforts never achieve any depth or dimension. As I've always found with a Powers book, despite or maybe because of everything he desperately throws at it ("cophrophagic" instead of plain old "shit eating" grin kind of epitomizes the problem, as do all the would-be lyrical but actually wearisome lists of natural wonders), in this one he once again misses the mark. The mark being the powerful, stirring, devastating novel this one wants to be but is not.

Along with the general failure there's a specific offense, one that I suppose shouldn't surprise me but still does every time an author commits it, which these boy geniuses yep keep on doing. That is this book's overweening androcentrism. It's a man's man's man's man's world in Powersland, and this is true even though some of the central characters are women, a neat trick. I could go on and on about this but will just mention a few aspects of this insult. One, the most egregious, is the use of the words "man" and "mankind" throughout to refer to human beings. Jesus H. Christ. In the year 2018. Two, following this, every specific tree that plays a part in a scene is referred to as "he." Really!? This even after we've already been told that most trees are male or female. Yet Powers can't manage to adhere to fact when portraying them. Three, in Powers world, it seems, only fathers matter. Just about every story line starts with a depiction of the character's relationship with her/his father, and this father remains a keynote throughout the characters' ensuing lives; mothers are barely mentioned and when they are, it's ridiculously stereotypically (with a nice pinch of cultural racism thrown in, in the case of the Indian mother who gets a handful of lines bobbling her head and nagging her son to get married). Apparently, in Powers' view, only fathers matter. Daddy issues much, sir?

There's more. Like the absence of a single Black or Latinx character in what sets itself up to be a sweeping saga of recent U.S. history. Powers throws a line or a paragraph here and there to a Native person though these characters don't get any actual names or agency of any kind. And like the book's ultimate failure to provide any true vision, any forward thrust that doesn't devolve into dewy mysticism as the closing pages do, any real ideas or analysis about an actual way forward for humans and trees in this book about humans and trees. Which is not surprising, and which also explains the rapturous reviews this book has undeservedly received. When the literary establishment heaps praise on what they label a political novel, the very literary establishment that always vociferously denies there can ever even be such a thing as a political novel that achieves true art, the establishment that will never praise a really political novel that is truly radical and issues a real artistic-ideological challenge to bourgeois consciousness, well then you know the book in question has nothing new or exciting to recommend it.

That book, new and revolutionary, will come. The one that doesn't merely whine about what class society has wrought but tells a winning, gripping story of a real battle, a revolutionary class-struggle battle on a much grander scale than the little scenes depicted here, to save the trees and all the rest of us. I'll be waiting.
Profile Image for Diane Barnes.
1,298 reviews450 followers
June 13, 2019
This is quite possibly the most amazing thing I've ever read. It's brilliant, passionate, terrifying and painful. It's too long, it's difficult to read, there are too many characters to follow....and yet, those characters are all of us, at some point in our lives. Let's just say this is The War and Peace of nature.
The novel begins with the story of a chestnut tree in Iowa. It escaped the east coast chestnut blight by virtue of having been brought west in the pocket of a Swedish emigrant. If you can read this beginning chapter without emotion, you're a harder person than I am. Each succeeding chapter is about a person or persons whose lives were changed by a tree, until the book branches off into their efforts to save the Redwoods in California and Oregon. The preceding sentence is a simplistic effort on my part to explain the plot. In reality, this novel can't be explained because it contains worlds, and the creation and destruction of worlds, battles between environmentalists and scientists who see what's happening, and corporations and lawyers who don't care as long as there's one more cent of profit to be made.

This particular novel is about trees and forests, but the same thing is happening to our oceans and rivers and coastlines. Build more houses and condos and roads, allow offshore drilling for oil, because there are more and more of us, and we all need more and more stuff.
If you can read to the end of this novel without fear of what we have done to this earth, and what is yet to come, then you didn't pay attention. The saddest thing of all is that the ones who need the message the most will never read this book, and wouldn't understand it if they did. I don't know how to fix that. Maybe the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize will get more readers for The Overstory. Maybe teachers can make it required school reading. Maybe it's too late.............
Profile Image for Michael Finocchiaro.
Author 3 books5,630 followers
February 1, 2021
Richard Power's The Overstory is a masterpiece that won the 2019 Pulitzer for Fiction. It is monumental piece of environmental fiction whose ubersubject (the "overstory" if you will) is trees and how humans have misunderstood them, fought over them, destroyed them, and even died for them.

The book's initial section, "Roots", contains introductions the nine protagonists of the primary narrative which constitutes the largest section called "Trunk." Each character is fully fleshed out and while they seem all completely unrelated, Powers succeeds in winding all their stories together, like so many subterranean roots and fungi, into a coherent narrative. Adam, Olivia, Nick, Douglas and Mimi are all tightly bound into an activist movement on the west coast and their stories add the drama to the story as sort of the tallest, most visible redwood forest that they are struggling to protect. Around them, the other characters have peripheral views into the primary action playing out on TV as Neely writes a successful Civilization/Minecraft game which he evolves towards a more ecological underpinning, the professor Patricia who - like the very real Peter Wollheben and The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World - writes about the very real and tangible ways that trees communicate, and the dysfunctional couple of Ray and Dorothy who let their mutual love of nature lapse and see their relationship collapse.

Having read Wollheben before Powers, I started to raise my own consciousness about trees. I was also lucky to have caught the Trees exposition here in Paris at the Foundation Cartier (https://www.fondationcartier.com/en/e...). Also, I have an aunt in Kentucky whose ash trees are succumbing to the emerald ash borer like most of the other ash trees in America. The plagues that have periodically wiped out species of trees affect the life of Nick and Adam. In the latter case, "The fungus gutted Detroit while the kids were still small. Then Chicago, soon thereafter. The country's most popular street tree, vases that turned boulevards into great tunnels, was leaving this world. (p. 55) One of the unstated issues that the book tries to demonstrate is that had the forests not been cleared so completely, the natural defenses of trees may have been able to combat these waves of destruction.

The writing is mostly in the present tense which helps pull the reader into the story and makes time almost disappear while reading it. Almost as if the reader is trying to channel time as trees experience it. There are also nice literary allusions, my favorite was this one: "Civilized yards are all alike. Every wild yard is wild in its own way. (p. 384). I'll let the erudite commenters reveal which masterpiece Powers was quoting there.

As an aside, I wanted to briefly talk compare The Overstory and The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World with a book which I have vocally criticized: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. In the latter, the author bemoans the wanton destruction caused by the agricultural revolution, but to my mind proposes no alternative and just leaves the reader with empty, vsacuous soundbites. In the former two books, we are given a vast insight into how trees communicate and how they are intimately related to human beings. Yes, our ignorance of their speech (as alien to us as would be expected because our life spans and perception of time is on the same magnitude as that of flies to humans) has caused irreparable damage to the ecosystem. And there is an obvious domino effect: global warming and climate change. But, in the two books about trees, even if a militant outlook is shown to be a dead-end, it is demonstrated that being custodians of nature, we can help forests come back and preserve our biodiversity. It is not all of humankind that is to blame, as Harari would have us believe, but rather, rapacious grift driving large corporations which reap a direct, short-term financial benefit from wholesale environmental destruction. If the law was enforced rather than trampled upon, the jobs could be converted to conservation-related jobs and the forests could be preserved. I found that this positive message was stronger than any of the superficial aphorisms in Harari's book.

In conclusion, the book is truly beautiful and well-written. I believe its core message was something like this: "It feels good, like a root must feel when it finds, after centuries, another root to pleach to underground. There are a hundred thousand species of love, separately invented, each more ingenious than the last, and every one of them keeps making things. (p. 144)

My rating of all the Pulitzer Winners: https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/1...
Profile Image for Conor Ahern.
660 reviews192 followers
July 16, 2020
When I was in fifth grade, I won a county poetry contest for a poem I wrote, prosaically titled "Trees." The poem had a taut, A-A-B-B rhyming pattern, mined precocious adjectives from a thesaurus, and concluded with the cringeworthy line, "People and trees: incredible connection."

If you want to save the time it takes to read 500 pages and skip the saccharine plot, I am happy to dig up the entirety of the poem for you, because they have the same goal and accomplish the same end.

This book, which I enjoyed for about 100 pages, might better be called "Trees, Actually." Like the movie "Love, Actually," a bunch of strangers have their lives upended and relationships manufactured around a common conceit, except instead of Christmas, it's trees! None of it really makes sense and is mostly overwrought, with the only difference between the two works being that I actually quite liked "Love, Actually," even admitting its absurdity. But this book was just tedious, a bunch of otherwise normal people abandoning their lives, responsibilities and all conventions to fight back against cartoonish tree-killing villains.

It is true that we all need to become better stewards of the environment, and this book gets points for its good intentions and cool factoids about our arboreal friends. But almost anyone who makes it through this book is probably already converted to the environmentalist cause (or at least whatever substrate involves believing "trees = good"), and I wager that anyone who wasn't will be turned off by how silly and mawkish this book is. Read Naomi Klein's This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate instead.

ETA: a Pulitzer!? The year after "Less," too. Really makes a guy grumble
Profile Image for Tadiana ✩Night Owl☽.
1,880 reviews22.8k followers
April 17, 2019
2019 Pulitzer Prize winner for Fiction! This dense, literary book will make you think.

… when you cut down a tree, what you make from it should be at least as miraculous as what you cut down.

Final review, first posted on Fantasy Literature:

The Overstory is a powerful, literary novel, shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize. It sings, in part, a paean to the wonders of trees and the multitude of wonders that old-growth forests and a variety of trees brings to our world. It also mourns a tragedy: how humans relentlessly annihilate these priceless resources, and what drives some people to eco-terrorism.

The Overstory is brilliantly organized in a form that reflects an actual tree. It begins with a section aptly titled “Roots,” a set of eight apparently unconnected stories in which we meet nine disparate characters: An artist whose family home in Iowa boasts one of the last healthy American chestnut trees. The engineer daughter of a Chinese immigrant. An odd, unmotivated teenager inspired by a book about human behavior and psychology. An intellectual property attorney who falls in love with an unconventional stenographer. A Vietnam veteran who stumbles into a job planting seedlings to replace mature trees that have been cut down. A brilliant computer programmer, permanently disabled by a fall from a tree. A postdoc, hearing- and speech-impaired woman who studies trees, discovering that they communicate with each other, and is ridiculed for her conclusions. And a beautiful, careless college undergrad who dies from an accidental electrocution and returns to life with a vision and a purpose. And all of these characters have been deeply affected by trees, in one way or another.

Richard Powers traces the lives of these nine people ― often back to their childhood or even their ancestors ― to explore how they have developed into the people they are. These introductory stories of their lives are excellent and insightful; good enough that they could stand alone as individual short stories. But Powers is just getting started.


In the next section, “Trunk,” their lives come together and begin to affect each other. Four of them become eco-warriors, part of the tree-hugging movement whose proponents will do almost anything to stop the logging and stripping of irreplaceable mature redwoods and old-growth forests. “Trunk” culminates in a terrible, unexpected event that will change their lives forever. And so we proceed to “Crown” and then the shorter, final section, “Seeds.”

The Overstory is a little bit magical realism, with messages being shared with some of the characters by some mystical source, and a little bit science fiction, as the genius computer programmer develops video games that turn into a type of artificial intelligence. But mostly Richard Powers is trying to convince us, as readers, of the wondrous nature of trees, and to treat trees, and our world generally, with deeper respect. The novel shifts its focus somewhat in the final section, with a somewhat cryptic hint that trees may well outlast humanity.

Parts of The Overstory rate five stars, easily, but personally I hit a bit of a wall with the lengthy middle section, “Trunk.” As brilliantly written as the book is, it’s also sometimes slow-paced, repetitious and didactic, as Powers delves into the evils of the corporations and groups who are indiscriminately cutting down trees and eliminating forests, and the worst of the tactics they use against those who try to oppose them. I think this novel would have benefited by being edited down by about a hundred pages and by being less overtly preachy. But Powers is clearly angry, and wants us to share that anger and be moved to take action. It may be message fiction, but this is potent stuff. Also, as Powers points out more than once, trees live very slowly compared to humans, and that is echoed in the deliberate pacing of The Overstory.

For readers already of the view that humans are doing profound damage to the ecology of our world, The Overstory will give you additional arguments and inspiration. For those more skeptical, it may cause you to reexamine some of your views. The Overstory isn’t an easy read, but it’s a powerful and persuasive work of art.


I received a free copy from the publisher for review. Thank you!

Content notes: some, very limited adult content (language, violence, sexual situations). This isn’t a book for younger readers in any case.

Initial post: This hefty, literary book looks a little intimidating, but interesting. The Secret Life of Trees. Off we go!
Profile Image for Sean Barrs .
1,118 reviews44.8k followers
December 29, 2022
The Overstory is very green, very vibrant and very important.

You could even say that it is a celebration of the natural world and the power she possesses, but that would be a drastic oversimplification. The novel equally explores (but perhaps not celebrates) human nature and our failures to act and care in the face of ecological collapse. So few people are willing to do anything and extend empathy beyond their immediate lives. And here you have the crux of the novel: environmental frustration.

The natural world has called certain people to defend her; they feel compelled to change destructive behaviours: they have been awakened to nature’s desperate plight and they are ready to act positively for much needed change. And they are met with ridicule, greediness and people too ignorant to understand the importance of trees in our lives.

“The most wonderous products of four billion years of life need help.”

Trees are silent sentinels witnessing the passing of generations, as human families are characterised in tree years through parts of the story. In this the pervading power of the natural world is contrasted against the fragile nature of human existence. Our environment has evolved drastically, but we haven’t. We still have many innate animal behaviours that are completely unsuited to the modern world. We are ill adapted to our concrete environments. There’s a reason why we feel a sense of peace and tranquillity when we visit a forest or an open landscape. It’s where we belong.

The need for change is fuelled by a strong undercurrent of scientific progress and academic discovery, but that can only achieve so much. It is the act of storytelling itself that becomes the best tool for change:

“The best arguments in the world won't change a person's mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.”

The book is a heavy hitter. Powers creates a huge cast of characters with overlapping stories in order to bring these themes home. It’s a book that is easy to become lost in but is pulled together by its central and unifying motif of ecological concern. It is a marvellous piece of writing though it is undeniably difficult in places. It is challenging and it will make you think, but most importantly it is best described as a book that drastically wants us to consider how important trees are.

We really need them. We can't survive without them.


You can connect with me on social media via My Linktree.
Profile Image for Manny.
Author 30 books14k followers
February 20, 2021
- Gabriel?

- Yes boss?

- I want you to send them a final warning.

- Another one boss?

- Did they listen to the last three?

- Uh, no boss.

- Gabriel, I know you're trying hard.

- Yes boss.

- I know you're doing your very best to get My word out to these people.

- I'm doing everything I can boss.

- Well it's not enough. Do more.

- Yes boss. I've got some great arguments ready. This could be the breakthrough.

- Arguments don't work, Gabriel. You should know that by now. Tell me what works.

- Uh, stories boss. They like stories for some reason.

- That's better. Do you have any stories prepared?

- Yes boss. Nine of them. They link up and everything.

- You were just teasing me, weren't you?

- Uh boss, Thou knowest I would not in all Eternity presume--

- Never mind. Maybe I need to be teased. Add some plant biology. As much as you can.

- Didst Thou say plant biology boss?

- Gabriel, are you sure you're paying attention?

- I'm sorry boss. I guess I'm a bit tired.

- Well, we're all a bit tired. But we're not going to let recent events get to us. We can still beat the Opposition.

- Yes boss. I know we can. Plant biology.

- Trees, Gabriel. Talk about trees. They are among the greatest of My servants on that Me-forsaken planet. I want people to notice that.

- Thou hast not really forsaken them boss?

- Of course not. Would we be having this conversation otherwise?

- Uh, no boss. Trees. Got it. Any particular kinds?

- I've always had a weakness for redwoods and chestnuts. But whatever works. Use your judgement.

- Yes boss.

- And talk about coding.

- Didst Thou say coding boss?

- Gabriel, this will soon be over one way or another. Then you can take a couple of aeons vacation. The thing on Mars isn't urgent yet.

- Yes boss.

- People underestimate coding. I knew what I was doing when I sent them Saint Alan. It's all part of My plan.

- Yes boss. I see that now.

- Read me back your list.

- Nine stories, trees, coding. Can I put in some poetry?

- Of course you can, Gabriel. Just don't overdo it. Remember what happened with the Quran.

- Yes boss.

- Alright, we're finished. You have your orders. Move!
Profile Image for Jenny (Reading Envy).
3,876 reviews3,113 followers
August 12, 2018
This amazing book connects specific trees to people or families and then the stories come together and morph into being about the environment, how trees relate to each other, and this underlying theme of personal and natural histories that always play out. Decisions have long-reaching consequences, etc. The first section had me in tears about Chestnut trees. All I wanted to do when I reached the end was go back to the beginning.

I started this as a review copy but bought my own hardcover before I hit 100 pages.
Profile Image for Hugh.
1,272 reviews49 followers
April 16, 2019
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2018
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2019

This is the most ambitious and complex book on the Booker longlist, and two thirds of the way through it, I was pretty sure it was heading for five stars and being one of the best books I have read this year. Sadly, I found the last part rather disappointing, and I know from previous experience that Powers is capable of better. Perhaps a convincing resolution is too much to ask when the subject matter is so diverse and extraordinary.

The book is all about trees, and in many ways the trees are more important than the diverse cast of human characters, all of whom become involved with protecting, nurturing or learning from trees in many different ways.

Throughout the book there are many examples of extraordinary trees, their importance to supporting other forms of life and the mechanisms by which they grow, communicate, cooperate and react to threats. Powers cannot resist the occasional foray into his long-established interest in human behavioural psychology.

If all of this sounds dry and unreadable, that would convey entirely the wrong impression - Powers is a masterful storyteller and everything is clearly explained in terms that are easy to relate to.

The first section introduces each of the main characters in separate chapters. The first chapter sets the tone - an Iowa settler plants chestnuts on his farm. One survives, and this tree is photographed monthly by several generations of the family - it also survives the blight which wiped out most of the chestnut trees in the eastern States. We then move to a Chinese family attempting to grow mulberries to harvest silk. By the time this section finishes we are almost a third of the way through the book.

The second section brings many of the human cast together in 80s California, where they join campaigners attempting to protect some of the last remaining redwood trees - this is a mixture of fact and exaggeration - in general the tree science is fact, but the human activity is fictional or adapted. At the end of this section, the failure of these protests leads them to start an arson campaign, . For me this was the most powerful part of the book.

The third section moves them on twenty years, where the past either haunts or catches up with the protestors, and the other characters are developed. The short final section is more speculative and less convincing. I also felt that many of the humans were a little too caricatured, but perhaps that was necessary to make the book work.

I couldn't help seeing this book as something of a companion piece to Annie Proulx's Barkskins. Both centre on humanity's voracious and wanton destruction of aboriginal forest land, both are epic novels and both are mostly set in the United States. They diverge there - Powers is fascinated by the details of tree science and the importance of forests to the world's ecosystem and biodiversity, Proulx is more interested in the older history and the effect of deforestation on native Americans. For me, Barkskins was the more complete book.

The details are, as ever with Powers, fascinating and impressive, but inevitably the science is a little simplified to meet the demands of the story and some of the conjecture is decidedly fanciful. This is a fascinating and thought provoking book.
Profile Image for Lark Benobi.
Author 1 book2,116 followers
April 15, 2019
When I began reading this magnificent book I declared "this is going to be one of my favorite books of 2018." Then something happened. I wanted to know more about chestnut trees and the Hoel legacy, damnit. I was entranced by the chestnut-manna scene that begins the novel, and the lone tree that survives on the Hoel farm, and every perfect thing that happened between the words "Now is the time of chestnuts" and "the bluest of Midwestern skies."

Then, ok, what followed was "interesting." Now and then I felt moved. But mostly I felt led around, like being on a tour at a museum where the docent hurries you from room to room, when what you really want is to spend some more time right where you are, seeing less, but seeing full.
147 reviews
May 16, 2018
Sad to tank a story about how human beings fail to value or even understand the intelligence/importance of nature because that's a cause close to my heart, but any novel that unironically drops a "pretty but she didn't know it" needs to receive its due criticism.

I came for the gorgeous cover and promise of tree appreciation without knowing anything about the author but quickly placed Powers in that group of authors who believe so much in the myth of their own male genius that they are somehow lauded for being cerebral when audiences fail to connect to their stories. It's not that the writing was bad (there were some truly beautiful/insightful passages and interesting experiments with structure) or overtly offensive (I think if you asked Powers he would say he put a lot of effort into being inclusive), but it was not half as wise and effecting as it (and reviewers) purported it to be, half as short as it could have been, and failed to break from a non white/able/straight male perspective despite having token non white/able/straight male POV characters.
Profile Image for Spencer Orey.
557 reviews140 followers
November 27, 2018
Brilliant, slow, and meditative. It made me evaluate my ideas about sustainability, wood, and trees and how I can be a better person in the world. None of the characters really stuck with me, but the presentation of different species of trees (and individual trees situated in places and times) in their grand majesty over time was extraordinary.

My hardback copy was printed on recycled paper, which was a good detail!
Profile Image for Cheri.
1,794 reviews2,386 followers
October 7, 2019
4.5 Stars

“We lived on a street where the tall elm shade
Was as green as the grass and as cool as a blade
That you held in your teeth as we lay on our backs
Staring up at the blue and the blue stared back

“I used to believe we were just like those trees
We'd grown just as tall and as proud as we pleased
With our feet on the ground and our arms in the breeze
Under a sheltering sky”

-- Only a Dream, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Songwriters: Mary Chapin Carpenter

”First there was nothing. Then there was everything.”

”First there was nothing. Then there was everything.”

”The pine she leans against says: Listen. There’s something you need to hear.”

I say, Richard Powers’ Overstory is something you need to read. I’d like to leave it at that and believe that you might actually read it, because I’m not sure I have words that would do justice to this, and at the same time my mind and heart are jumbled in thoughts and I’m still somewhere inside the pages of this book, trying to hold onto that feeling for just a bit longer.

This begins with a short chapter that has the feeling of a biblical tale, with perhaps a touch of magical realism to it. The meaning, the cycle of life, but also the life lessons that we are somehow missing, unable to grasp.

”A chorus of living wood sings to the woman: If your mind were only a slightly greener thing, we’d drown you in meaning.”

This is divided into sections, with the second section sharing Nicholas Hoel’s story, as the young Jørgen Hoel, among others, throws his stone into the tree to bring down the chestnuts, over and over. A free-fall of food in this still young country. Later that night, he will propose to Vi, a young Irish girl, and they marry before Christmas, and will move ”through the great tracts of eastern white pine, into the dark beech forests of Ohio, across the Midwestern oak breaks, and out to the settlement near Fort Des Moines in the new state of Iowa, where the authorities give away land platted yesterday to anyone who will farm it..

It’s not an easy life, but they make it through the first winter, and by the time it is time to plant again, Vi is pregnant. When Hoel comes across the six chestnuts he had put in his pocket the night he proposed to Vi, he ”presses them into the earth of western Iowa, on the treeless prairie around the cabin.”

Hundreds of miles away from the native range of chestnuts, further still from Prospect Hill, but he has hope for the future, for their future.

His son will record the growth of the one tree that remains many years later with a Kodak No. 2 Brownie camera, every month from the same spot and the time of day. His personal ritual, a ritual that for him feels holy, like the sacrament of communion.

There are many other character’s stories that eventually become somewhat intertwined, but at the root of all of these stories is this reverence for trees, so much so in some of these stories that they act as one of the characters.

From the beginning, this is lovely, even though there were minor parts of this story I didn’t enjoy quite as much as others. There were times when I felt a point was being driven home again and again, which took away some of what I loved about this story, and occasionally it felt heavy and dense, for me, especially later in the book, but ultimately, this is one I won’t forget.

Many thanks for the ARC provided by W.W. Norton & Company
Profile Image for Michael.
1,094 reviews1,536 followers
October 22, 2018
A wonderful tour of how human lives can intersect and become engaged with that of trees. The complex narrative of nine separate characters who grow alone, have different kind of formative influences from events involving trees, and then converge in mind or action by the middle of the book on the political fight in the 80s over the logging of the last old-growth forest plots in the Pacific Northwest. In the process we get to experience a satisfying interplay and integration between tree-hugger spirituality (or cult mentality from some perspectives) and the surprising discoveries about the ecology and botany of trees in recent decades.

All of us I think are reeling from the planetary ecological crisis brought on by the interconnected issues of deforestation, loss of biodiversity, and global warming. This book provides emotional relief by making these issues part of the personal stories of characters whose aspirations and motivations are easy to identify with. Some get attuned to trees through their parents of family traditions; others through accidents or surprises. In each case, their lives eventually become transformed by concern for trees. As Ovid began “Metamorphoses”:

Let me sing to you now, about how people turn into other things.

For example, a key character, Patricia, grows up feeling isolated by her hearing impairment but gets drawn to the mysteries of the world of plants through the inspiration of outdoor travels with her father and readings of his books such as those by the 19th century naturalist John Muir, who said:

We all travel the Milky Way together, trees and men … In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks. The clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness.

Her thesis and post-doctoral work on chemical alerting among trees upon attacks by insects ends up being so ahead of its time, is attacked by established scientists at meetings where she can overhear the slanderous rejection in whispers in the crowd: “There’s the woman who thinks that trees are intelligent.” She quits academia for work as a high school teacher and later as a wilderness ranger in an Oregon national forest.

Nick is another key character because his story of a tree connection follows multiple generations, starting with the arrival of his Swedish ancestor at a farm homestead in Iowa in the 19th century. His admiration of the grace and nut bounty of the American Chestnut in his transitional residence in Brooklyn leads him plant some at the new farm. The advent of photography leads him to take monthly pictures of the one seedling that survived, a tradition passed down and given impetus when soon after the turn of the century all chestnuts east of the Mississippi succumb to an undefeatable fungus. Nick inherits the huge stack of photos, which when flipped provide a rare window into the growth behavior of a tree over the span of more than a century, branching, reaching, and racing for the sun. Marvelous invention by Powers (or highlight of something actually done?).

When Nick’s parents die in a propane heater accident, the contrast of this tree’s timescale puts his tragedy in perspective:
When he looks up, it’s into the branches of the sentinel tree, lone, huge, fractal, and bare against the drifts, lifting its lower limbs and shrugging its ample globe. All its profligate twigs click in the breeze as if this moment, too, so insignificant, so transitory, will be written into its rings and prayed over by branches that wave their semaphore against the bluest of midwestern winter skies.

Nick’s affinity is with art and painting, not in the death-throes of the family farm in the face of industrial agribusiness. In reducing possessions before selling the farm, he advertises “Free Tree Art” on the highway, and chance favors him with a visit by one Olivia who is passing through on her way to joining the protesters against clearcutting in the Pacific Northwest. Her character was introduced earlier as a disinterested actuarial student who, like Saul on the road to Damascus, has a near death experience which makes her suddenly hungry for s more meaningful path to her life. A TV news interview with a protester engages her with this powerful logic:

Some of these trees were around before Jesus was born. We’ve already taken ninety-seven percent of the old ones. Couldn’t we find a way to keep the last three percent?

They join the growing movement of activists trying to stop the rush of timber companies in Oregon trying to harvest all the big, old redwoods and Douglas firs before a law is passed to restrict the harvest. At first non-violent civil disobedience prevails. Nick and Olivia do things like chaining themselves with others to block harvest equipment passage on logging roads. The next step is ‘tree sitting’, which puts them together for months on a platform in the canopy of a fir more than 300 years old. The efforts of Powers to capture such an experience was a high point for me in the book. A lovely example of the convergence of character stories comes when they read a book together during their vigil called “The Secret Forest”. Written by Patricia, it begins:

You and the tree in your back yard came from a common ancestor. A billion and a half years ago, the two of you parted ways. But even now, after an immense journey in separate directions that tree and you share a quarter of your genes.

While a forest ranger, Patricia encounters botanists at a field station who tell her that ten years after her research discoveries were discounted it was finally validated and serves as a major inspiration to them. She gets a chance to join them and expand upon her work on airborne signaling to underground communication between trees through fungal filament network in the soil linking their roots. The “mycorrhizal” networks represent a symbiosis based on the fungus providing the trees mineral nutrients from the soil and trees in exchange providing them glucose. Through the network a large tree can send water and nutrients to nurture vulnerable saplings, and a dying tree can bestow its resources to healthy survivors. The activists gather in the message that trees form a cooperative network that bears some resemblance to an intelligent community of communicating individuals. In the case of a grove of aspens, the individual trunks one sees turns out to be genetically identical offshoots from a common root mass which could be thousands of years old.

From the foregoing, you can get the picture on how all the tree-hugger elements of the tale are tempered with a lot of real science for a foundation. The character of Adam plays an interesting role for bridging this divide. He joins Nick and Olivia during their tree-sitting to interview them for his thesis research, which aims to investigate the foundations of tribal biasing of human thinking toward irrational beliefs, such as that of trees being intelligent and deserving of legal rights. The more Adam comes to experience what Nick and Olivia are up to compared to the intransigent greed of the logging industry, the more he respects them. Their opponents display stickers like these on their vehicles:

Loggers: The Real endangered Species.
Earth First! We’ll log the other planets later.

Adam gets even more radicalized from the dangerous and brutal tactics to complete the logging of the tract and, finally, the tree they are protecting. Some of the tragedy we experience in the downing of the Tree of Life in the movie “Avatar” comes through to him. Soon after their release from arrest for their crimes, Adam joins the couple in their escalation toward more active and criminal resistance, such as destroying loggers’ equipment. A disastrous outcome from one such initiative sends Adam into hiding and pursuit of a quiet academic life.

So far I’ve talked only about four characters. Among the five other characters, another man and woman have their own critical tree experiences that ends up putting them on the path toward activism in the Northwest. The others are very different. There is an urban couple who work at a legal office and do amateur theater with only limited intersections with trees. But eventually they get interested in gardening, and, in compassion for the deforestation problem, adopt the practical antidote of letting their back yard go wild, neighbors and municipal authorities be damned. And just maybe they can imagine some effective legal arguments to support the rights of a forest. The final character, the son of an Indian electronics engineer, becomes paraplegic from a fall from a maple tree planted in honor of his birth. He has the gumption and skill to succeed in life as a computer programmer, and from his heart designs a role-playing computer game that puts a lot of heroes out of Hindu mythology in the context of a forest world that emulates a lot of global ecology. By this means he sensitizes millions toward a mindset of problem-solving ecological issues. These are all vibrant characters and round out the others I highlighted.

This novel surprised me on almost every page with special ways of looking at our human lives in relation to our poor stewardship of forest resources. The flights of science, poetry, politics, and mythology never intrude as discursive or self-indulgent elements in the narrative, but they always emerge naturally from the human stories portrayed. I feel ashamed to have accumulated so many books by Powers over the years without reading one until now.

Related readings to consider
Personally, this book was a perfect fit with other books read in recent years, including these that I can recommend:

--Forests: The Shadow of Civilization, by Robert Pogue Harrison—a tour of cultural history and mythology about forests as a sites for human quests, refuge, or spiritual transformation
--My First Summer in the Sierra, by John Muir—a naturalist’s portrayal of his hikes in these California mountains, including his poetic and spiritual reactions to his first encounters with the ancient, giant redwoods and sequoias (free audio version at Librivox)
--The Monkey Wrench Gang, by Edward Abbey—satirical, semi-autobiographical take on a set of colorful characters engaged in radical activism against deforestation
--Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren—entertaining and educational autobiography of an ecological scientist, including some forays into the field of tree communication via fungal networks
--The Diversity of Life, by Edward O. Wilson—masterful synthesis of biodiversity and species interdependency in ecosystems and scope of the current threat, with a focus on forests and jungles

Value added reading:
--Do Trees Talk to Each Other?, by Richard Grant; Smithsonian Magazine, March 2018--review of Peter Wohlleben’s “The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate”
--Nature's Internet: How Trees Talk to Each Other in a Healthy Forest, by Suzanne Simard. Youtube video of TED Talk, July 2016
--Why Should Trees Have Legal Rights? by Maria Banda; Globe and Mail, June 1, 2018
--Branching Out, by John Gorka, 1987; YouTube video--whimsical song about becoming a tree which is "gonna reach, gonna reach for the sky, gonna reach until I know why"
Profile Image for PattyMacDotComma.
1,484 reviews844 followers
December 10, 2021
“A colossal, rising, reaching, stretching space elevator of a billion independent parts, shuttling the air into the sky and storing the sky deep underground, sorting possibility from out of nothing: the most perfect piece of self-writing code that his eyes could hope to see.”

A tree, viewed by a computer coder lying flat on his back on the ground, having fallen out of one. Self-writing code, perhaps self-sustaining, or like a perpetual motion machine? He’s a gamer, an inventor, one of many unusual characters in this unusual book.

Yes, it’s a book about trees, the title playing on the real word ‘overstorey’, meaning the forest canopy. This is about the big picture, from the ground up, roots to canopy and back. Plenty of science, but all of it interesting (to me).

It’s also a book about an assortment of characters, mostly pairs, and their interactions with, or passion for, trees and forests (and sometimes each other).

A lot of the tree information I am already familiar with, as are many prospective readers, but there’s always more to learn.

“Each of the world’s seven hundred and fifty species of Ficus has its own unique wasp tailored to fertilize it. And this one wasp somehow found the precise fig species of her destiny. The foundress laid her eggs and died. The fruit that she fertilized became her tomb.”

I’m also familiar with the types of characters the author has selected, quirky, iconoclastic, talented (mostly) outsiders. Many began with an early interest in the natural world until adulthood caught up with them.

The four main sections of the book are ROOTS, in which we are introduced to the nine main characters. The first family’s history begins in the late 1800s, while others begin in the late 20th century. These are completely separate, enjoyable stories, long enough to get a good look at the people and remember who they are. Their stories are interesting and very individual, including one which later becomes a mystical Joan-of-Arc tale.

Next comes TRUNK, which is where storylines cross and the characters find themselves connected by their love for trees, sometimes just a single favourite or a cluster. At this point in the story, the author neatly paraphrases the expression to bail out the Titanic with a thimble. And he gets political.

“A group of backpackers took two days making their way overland to join this spectacle, all trying to bail out the ocean of capitalism with an acorn cap.”
. . .
“In the festive atmosphere, under so blue a sky, walking arm in arm with strangers up the slight grade . . . “

One character of Chinese heritage is surprised to find herself disobeying her parents’ cautious migrant principles.

“Make no noise in this world . . . Don’t stand out; you have no right. No one owes you a thing. Keep small, vote mainstream, and nod like it all makes sense. Yet here she is, asking for trouble. Acting like what she does might matter.
. . .
Righteousness makes Mimi nuts. She has always been allergic to people with conviction. But more than she hates conviction, she hates sneaky power.”

Note the “spectacle” and “festive atmosphere”. It’s that atmosphere and the ‘alternative’ look of many environmental campaigners that attract mainstream media to cover events. The media are usually careful to avoid offending those with “sneaky power”.

They give themselves names: Watchman, Maidenhair, Mother N, Tinkerbell, Revelator. They would like to be the stuff of legends, but I imagine people seeing the “spectacle” on the news and hearing their names will dismiss them as a bunch of weed-smokers.

There is plenty of action, confrontation, politics, and philosophy leading from here to CROWN, where the characters move forward in their adult lives as they go their mostly separate ways. The twin towers fall on Sept 11, 2001.

The descriptions of various trees, forests, communities of vegetation are wonderful. One character, who is a scientific researcher, would be happy to stay in the forest forever.

“Steep, steely streams scour through rickles of rock where salmon spawn—water cold enough to kill all pain. Falls flash over ridges turned jade by moss and tumbled with shed branches. In the scattered openings, shot here and there through the understory, sit secret congregations of salmonberry, elderberry, huckleberry, snowberry, devil’s club, ocean spray, and kinnikinnick. Great straight conifer monoliths fifteen stories high and a car-length thick hold a roof above all.”

When we move to SEEDS, she is travelling the world to research and collect seeds, but she meets the same argument everywhere.

“We don’t want to kill the golden goose, but it’s the only way around here to get to the eggs.”

The characters here are varied, but I can’t think of any who are just plain folks. One of the main leaders is a charismatic Joan of Arc figure who is following her visions from the east coast to the west and gathering acolytes along the way. Some talk to trees and/or think trees talk to them.

The science is showing that trees are a community that communicates conditions amongst themselves. There’s no suggestion that they are speaking, but that they emit signals about being threatened, for example, that other trees interpret and may be able to prepare for.

We sense oncoming rain by the smell in the air – whether ozone or the smells emanating from soils responding to increased moisture. If you’ve ever watched horses suddenly “hightailing” it around a paddock or field for no apparent reason, there’s a good chance there’s an electrical storm brewing.

There are characters in this book who do anthropomorphise trees, especially those that (who?) have been named. Like mountains, people adopt them. This book will appeal particularly to these people. I doubt it will make a dent in the industry that fells them and “replaces” them with single-variety monoculture.

One character thinks another has sacrificed himself to make a good story, because he had once said:

“The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.”

One of my favourite authors, Tim Winton called this a deadset masterpiece. It did win the 2019 Pulitzer Prize, but I think Winton tells a better story.

This was a good read, and I loved a lot of it. I don’t think it will change anyone’s mind.
Profile Image for Betsy Robinson.
Author 9 books1,075 followers
July 21, 2018
Immediately after inhaling the first two pages of this book, I screamed, "Thank you!" To whom, I'm not sure. Then throughout the book, I re-erupted with it, sometimes to Richard Powers, sometimes to whatever force allowed me to understand what came through Powers, through the page, through the people he was writing through, and through the ancient tree memory that pervaded this orgasmic and sweeping novel about all of Nature’s life.

This book, the writing, the subject of trees and Life with a capital "L" throbs. It's so beautiful and exciting that sometimes it hurts and you have to put the book down and digest. From the opening words, Richard Powers casts a spell, and for me it felt like thick and expansive energy—an altered state. Love. Love of and for trees as the complicated communal beings that they are, and when you feel that, it changes everything—from your relationship to the book you're holding that once was a tree, to your connection to Life, to the incontrovertible knowing that there is nothing that is not alive and remembering and praying, and even if we humans destroy ourselves, Life will always go on.

This is not our world with trees in it. It’s a world of trees, where humans have just arrived. [. . .] Trees know when we’re close by. The chemistry of their roots and the perfumes their leaves pump out change when we’re near. . . . When you feel good after a walk in the woods, it may be that certain species are bribing you. So many wonder drugs have come from trees, and we haven’t yet scratched the surface of the offerings. Trees have long been trying to reach us. But they speak on frequencies too low for people to hear. (424)

This book asks what keeps us humans from seeing the obvious—our smallness, our place in the context of all that is—and responding to it. And why do some people see it even though everybody around them does not?

My plants are happy I read this book.

Here is Sierra Club’s enlightening interview with Richard Powers about this book.
Profile Image for Dianne.
567 reviews931 followers
April 16, 2019
2019 Pulitzer Prize winner for Fiction!

A very erudite and weighty saga that took me over a week to read. It’s excellent, but at the same time, I really wanted it to be over so I could move on to another book. This is a novel where full attention must be paid.

Still, the truth is I learned a ton about the world of trees and will never look at them quite the same way again. The research and passion Powers poured into this novel is staggering. My husband and I just purchased a wooded lot to build a house next year, and I have found myself standing amongst the trees really LOOKING at them and listening; looking at the undergrowth for all of the life hidden below. Just this past weekend, two lots near ours cleared, cut and/or burned many of the trees on their property in preparation for building. We will have to do the same this spring. And it sucks! Seeing the stacked oak logs with the ash from the fires falling around us was surreal, especially since I was right in the middle of this book, thinking hard about the natural world and what we humans are doing to it.

Impressive and Man Booker longlist worthy; I’ll be surprised if this doesn’t make the shortlist. It is a commitment, though, so be aware when you start that it’s a lengthy, dense, and thoughtful kind of book. This isn’t a book you’ll be inclined to speed read. And although it’s a “tree-hugger” kind of book, it is not preachy and has an optimistic heart. If you choose to read this, I’d be very surprised if you don’t come out the other end a little transformed. Let me know!
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