I found myself reaching for a tree identification guide as I read this rather mind-blowing novel. Looking up many a species was truly educational! I wanted to know what a chestnut tree looked like when I learned herein of their disappearance due to a widespread blight.
Yet somehow one chestnut tree on an Iowa farm avoids the blight, and generations of the Hoels family religiously take a monthly photo of that imposing tree (how I love the thought of that).
Nick Hoels, a reclusive artist, leaves the farm behind after a chance meeting with a college dropout Livia, who swoops into his life and recruits him into a life of eco-terrorism. Eventually these two will live together in a tree house atop a giant sequoia in a forest about to undergo a clear cut.
This sprawling novel contains a multitude of characters whose lives are directly or indirectly affected by trees. This got me thinking how trees have been important to me. For one thing, I have been addicted to books all my life and have yet to convert to their electronic versions. Perhaps I’ve been taking paper for granted.
One of the major themes of THE OVERSTORY is how our culture takes trees and all of their products for granted.
But not Dr. Patricia Westerford, a character who devotes her life to studying all aspects of forestry. Even when she loses academic privileges due to her radical notions about the inter-connectedness of trees, she doesn’t give up her cause. Thank goodness ultimately the world starts to respect her research.
Other characters include a Viet Nam vet who owes his life to a banyan tree which he fell into after being shot down, a couple with a troubled marriage and infertility issues who whose love of trees bring about healing, and a computer genius who as a child fell out of an oak tree as a child and became paraplegic.
The way that Powers is able to shift between so many characters is top notch. He is known as a writers’ writer. And he is a MacArthur Award recipient, yet I had never read one of his novels.
I was so glad I picked this one up. At times towards the end of this 500-plus page novel, it did feel just a bit bogged down. My mind was reeling and so many tree species were dying. Yet I knew it was all worth it. My tree consciousness has been raised.
Is there any hope for the tree family in our times of climate change, pollution, excessive consumerism and dwindling biodiversity? There are hints of hope by novel’s end.
See what you think after you read it. Some might say this book is too evangelistic or overly crowded with facts about trees and forests, but I found it to be one of the most inspiring novels I’ve ever spent time with.
For a taste of its revelations, consider this short passage from the writings of Dr. Westerford:
There are no individuals in a forest, no separable events. The bird and the branch it sits on are a joint thing. A third or more of the food a big tree makes may go to feed other organisms. Even different kinds of trees form partnerships. Cut down a birch, and a nearby Douglas-fir may suffer… (p.218)
I think both Walt Whitman and Henry Thoreau would have loved this novel, though of course they would have hated to see the state our world is in. May The Overstory live on in the annals of both literature and ecology, inspiring generations to come.
Keddy Ann Outlaw
A librarian for nearly 30 years, Keddy is also a veteran reviewer for Library Journal. Formerly an art major, she’s now busy making mixed media collages, prints and assemblages, and posting as “The Lone Star Librarian” on her website, Speed of Light.