Richard Powers weaves the stories of nine disparate people’s lives together like tree branches on the ground after a strong storm. There’s a college student, a software genius, an engineer, a soldier, an artist, a researcher, a scientist, an actuarial attorney, and a community theater actress. Powers introduces each one separately, with decades of early life stories about most of them. And just when you start to sink into one story, he switches gears and sends you in another direction. It’s both intriguing and disconcerting.
Within each person’s experience is a connection to trees and the forest, although some start young and some later in life. Many characters are logical thinkers, but the elegance of the forest draws them towards itself. Powers makes the trees and the forest into collective characters themselves, particularly through the discussion of their ability to communicate with each other and maybe even with humans.
As the book progresses, some characters come together as eco activists. The description of their time in the forest is majestic and amazing. The action is highly detailed and also overwhelming at times. Moments are the gentle breeze of bamboo, or the crash of a thousand-year-old conifer coming down to the forest floor. Throughout the book Powers hit me with multiple gut punches.
Powers takes science and intertwines it to character studies like invasive kudzu vine growing on the innocent organisms around it. They fit together seamlessly and make a story that will remain in my heart for decades to come.
This is the November book for my IRL book group, and I’m way ahead of the game. I figured 500+ pages might take me some time to get through. But once I queued up the audio and dived in, I couldn’t stop listening. Suzanne Toren’s narration is nothing short of incredible, and Powers is a skilled story teller. The Overstory is worthy of the 2019 Fiction Pulitzer Prize.
As with any novel that weaves narrative arcs together, I connected with some more than others. Unexpectedly, it was the trees I connected with most. While I was reading, my neighbor cut down a few tall pines from his yard. I felt more upset than I would have before The Overstory. After I finished, I had a strong urge to go walking on a nearby trail (where the picture above was taken). I couldn’t help but wonder if the trees were talking about me.
Powers makes environmental causes and deforestation relatable and almost palpable. I learned facts, wished for a bibliography of further reading, and still felt connected to each character. This is a sweeping story, and hard to summarize briefly. The Overstory is about people’s both positive and negative relationships to trees and nature. It’s also about our connections to each other.