Book Review: THE OVERSTORY by Richard Powers

The Overstory

Mind blown.  When books connect on a personal level, they can transcend beyond words on the page.  That was THE OVERSTORY for me. I couldn’t help but think Richard Powers wrote this book for me.

It was an immediate connection not only to the author, but to the characters he populated within the book. I connected with them, cared about them, shared in their intense curiosity and love of nature – especially Patricia Westerford. Oh, Patricia. Your story gutted me, uplifted me, resonated with me. I felt connected to my tribe.

The OverstoryAll of these characters have a ‘tree’ story – an event in life that links them to trees. It reminded me so much of my own: the half dozen twiggy saplings my dad bought for me and my sister when we were young, and the competition we turned that event into — whose tree would grow faster? My sister’s maple or my oak?

For years, my sister’s maple grew as if it were racing to brush its branch tips against the skies, while my oak, stunted and sickly looking, seemed to inch along every few years, grounded to the earth. In the end, my sturdy oak won the race, with a formidable trunk, ample shade and a staggering height. Then there were the dozens of tiny pine tree seedlings my dad purchased. He wanted to plant them in rows, and even at about 11 years old, I bucked against that unnatural order and convinced him to plant them haphazardly – as if a true pine forest had popped up on its own in the middle of cleared Pennsylvania farmland. He agreed. And today, 35 years later, a lovely emerald pine forest scents the wind, beautiful in its asymmetry (and a balm to the neighboring old forest recently all but clear cut by relatives).

So I wonder if the author isn’t trying to get readers to dig deep for their own such stories? Because, as you’ll learn, we are all connected to trees in ways unimaginable. Do you have a story?

“Who cares,” you may say. Or “I’m not into trees.” Or “This book won’t be for me at all.”

All the more reason to read this masterpiece of a novel (more about that below). True, THE OVERSTORY may appeal most to those who enjoy literary, atmospheric, nature-heavy fiction. It will appeal to those who have a super healthy appetite and fascination with the natural world – trees yes, but even beyond. Those, like me, who wish we’d gone into the biological sciences. So, yes, it will appeal to the science crowd for sure – the biologists, geologists, ecologists, soil experts, naturalists, evolutionary zoologists … But also the birders, the backyard naturalists, environmentalists, the backpackers and rappellers, those who grew up in undisturbed patches of earth populated with trees that spoke to them, sheltered them, harbored their innermost secrets, and may even bear their names etched into their bark.

But… I hope urbanites and suburbanites who would rather do anything than spend a night camping in the woods or looking at trees – those who are caught up in the mundane busyness of 21st century living and caught in the social media cycle, the materialistic race for more, or stuck behind computer screens, or in carpool lanes – might read this book anyway.

Why? It’s brimming with complex characters who share incredible stories of their own and who are drawn together for a cause, for something they realize they love and are passionate about. It’s a book about consciousness, connection and communication and listening, and sacrifice and the future of our planet, our interconnectedness with other non-human, living things. It’s a book that forces us to take a long, hard look at humanity’s actions – our own, even – and ask questions. To look at the future and ask questions. THE OVERSTORY is a thinking book, not purely entertainment, and oh-so-timely given the behavior and mindset of our current political administration.

And the language… I read as slowly as possible to savor every sentence, every plot turn:

Dozens of braided trunks and roots feed on the ruined walls. Tentacles drip down to fill the chinks and split stones open. A root thicker than Neelay’s father’s body creeps across a lintel and seeps like a stalactite into the doorway beneath. This vegetable probing horrifies the boy …

She works all day in the woods, her back crawling with chiggers, her scalp with ticks, her mouth filled with leaf duff, her eyes with pollen, cobwebs like scarves around her face, bracelets of poison ivy, her knees gouged by cinders, her nose lined with spores, the backs of her thighs bitten Braille by wasps, and her heart as happy as the day is generous.”

While many may find the ending not tidy enough, with too many questions unanswered, this book is a masterpiece, alone, for its structure. The seemingly unrelated characters are connected in the most fascinating ways – ways that parallel the concentric circles of a tree’s trunk, its canopies, its seeds. Themes inch imperceptibly from one character’s story into another like the slow-growing, underground, interconnected root systems of trees. Brilliant in so many ways! Filled with thematic messages about storytelling, technology, tree consciousness (plants really do communicate), human behavior and psychology, love, climate change, relationships… So darn exceptional.

Finally: in an interview with Sierra, Powers admits that he was never really a ‘tree guy,’ but that writing this book literally changed his life. Maybe reading THE OVERSTORY will change yours? (Powers now lives in the Smoky Mountains after having researched/visited one of the largest remaining tracts of old-growth forests east of the Rockies).


(A version of Melissa Crytzer Fry’s review of THE OVERSTORY by Richard Powers was published at GoodReads on July 8, 2019. It is reposted here with the permission of the reviewer.)



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