Overstory (Powers)

The Overstory  
Richard Powers, 2018
W.W. Norton & Co.
512 pp.

Winner, 2019 Pulitizer Prize

♦ An Air Force loadmaster in the Vietnam War is shot out of the sky, then saved by falling into a banyan.

♦ An artist inherits a hundred years of photographic portraits, all of the same doomed American chestnut.

♦ A hard-partying undergraduate in the late 1980s electrocutes herself, dies, and is sent back into life by creatures of air and light.

♦ A hearing- and speech-impaired scientist discovers that trees are communicating with one another.

These four, and five other strangers—each summoned in different ways by trees—are brought together in a last and violent stand to save the continent’s few remaining acres of virgin forest.

In his twelfth novel, National Book Award winner Richard Powers delivers a sweeping, impassioned novel 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, The Overstory 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, exploring the essential conflict on this planet: the one taking place between humans and nonhumans.

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.

The Overstory is a book for all readers who despair of humanity’s self-imposed separation from the rest of creation and who hope for the transformative, regenerating possibility of a homecoming. If the trees of this earth could speak, what would they tell us? "Listen. There’s something you need to hear." (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—June 18, 1957
Where—Evanston, Illinois, USA
Education—M.A., University of Illinois
Awards—Pulitizer Prize, National Book Award-Fiction
Currently—lives in the Smoky Mountian region of Tennessee

Richard Powers is an American novelist whose works explore the effects of modern science and technology. The Echo Maker, perhaps his best known work, won the 2006 National Book Award for Fiction.

Early years
One of five children, Powers was born in Evanston, Illinois. His family later moved a few miles south to Lincolnwood where his father was a local school principal. When Powers was 11 they moved to Bangkok, Thailand, where his father had accepted a position at International School Bangkok, which Powers attended through his freshman year, ending in 1972.

During that time outside the U.S. he developed skill in vocal music and proficiency in cello, guitar, saxophone, and clarinet. He also became an avid reader, enjoying nonfiction, primarily, and classics such as the Iliad and the Odyssey.

The family returned to the U.S. when Powers was 16. Following graduation in 1975 from DeKalb High School in DeKalb, Illinois, he enrolled at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) with a major in physics, which he switched to English literature during his first semester. There he earned the BA in 1978 and the MA in Literature in 1980.

He decided not to pursue the PhD partly because of his aversion to strict specialization, which had been one reason for his early transfer from physics to English, and partly because he had observed in graduate students and their professors a lack of pleasure in reading and writing (as portrayed in Galatea 2.2).

For some time Powers worked in Boston, as a computer programmer. Viewing the 1914 photograph "Young Farmers" by August Sander, on a visit to the Museum of Fine Arts, he was inspired to quit his job and spend the next two years writing his first book, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, which was published in 1985.

To avoid the publicity and attention generated by that first novel, Powers moved to the Netherlands where he wrote Prisoner's Dilemma, followed up with The Gold Bug Variations. During a year's stay at the University of Cambridge, he wrote most of Operations Wandering Soul; then, in 1992 Powers returned to the U.S. to become writer-in-residence at the University of Illinois.

All told, Powers has published a dozen books, winning him numerous literary awards and other recognitions. These include, among various others, a MacArthur Fellowship; Pushcart Prize, PEN/Faulkner Special Citation, Man Booker long listing; nominations for the Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Circle Award; and the National Book Award itself in 2006.

In 2010 and 2013, Powers was a Stein Visiting Writer at Stanford University, during which time he partly assisted in the lab of biochemist Aaron Straight. In 2013, Stanford named him the Phil and Penny Knight Professor of Creative Writing in the Department of English.

While writing his 2018 novel, The Overstory, Powers left Palo Alto, California, moving to the foothills of the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee. (Adapted from Wikipedia. Retrieved 4/16/2018.)

Book Reviews
Monumental…The Overstory accomplishes what few living writers from either camp, art or science, could attempt. Using the tools of the story, he pulls readers heart-first into a perspective so much longer-lived and more subtly developed than the human purview that we gain glimpses of a vast, primordial sensibility, while watching our own kind get whittled down to size.… A gigantic fable of genuine truths.
Barbara Kingsolver - New York Times Book Review

[Powers is] brilliant on the strange idea of "plant personhood" …opening our eyes to the wondrous things just above our line of sight. Memorable chapters unfold [with] many unforgettable images in a novel devoted to "reviving that dead metaphor at the heart of the word bewilderment."
Sam Sacks - Wall Street Journal

Remarkable.… This ambitious novel soars up through the canopy of American literature and remakes the landscape of environmental fiction.
Ron Charles - Washington Post

A big, ambitious epic…Powers juggles the personal dramas of his far-flung cast with vigor and clarity. The human elements of the book—the arcs his characters follow over the decades from crusading passion to muddled regret and a sense of failure—are thoroughly compelling. So are the extra-human elements, thanks to the extraordinary imaginative flights of Powers’s prose, which persuades you on the very first page that you’re hearing the voices of trees as they chide our species.
Michael Upchurch - Boston Globe

The time is ripe for a big novel that tells us as much about trees as Moby Dick does about whales....The Overstory is that novel and it is very nearly a masterpiece.… On almost every page of The Overstory you will find sentences that combine precision and vision.
Times (UK)

An extraordinary novel.… An astonishing performance.… There is something exhilarating, too, in reading a novel whose context is wider than human life. The Overstory leaves you with a slightly adjusted frame of reference.… What was happening to his characters passed into my conscience, like alcohol into the bloodstream, and left a feeling behind of grief or guilt, even after I put it down.
Guardian (UK)

[I]mpassioned but unsatisfying.…Powers’s best works are thrilling accounts of characters blossoming as they pursue their intellectual passions; here, few of the earnest figures come alive on the page.… [T]he novel feels curiously barren.
Publishers Weekly

Standing as silent witnesses to our interweaving genealogies, cyclical wars, and collapsing empires, trees contain our collective history.… [A] deep meditation on the irreparable psychic damage that manifests in our unmitigated separation from nature. —Joshua Finnell, Colgate Univ., Hamilton, NY
Library Journal

(Starred review.) A magnificent saga.… Powers’s sylvan tour de force is alive with gorgeous descriptions; continually surprising, often heartbreaking characters; complex suspense; unflinching scrutiny of pain.… [P]rofound and symphonic.

(Starred review.) [A] masterpiece of operatic proportions, involving nine central characters and more than half a century of American life.… A magnificent achievement: a novel that is, by turns, both optimistic and fatalistic, idealistic without being naive.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
We'll add publisher questions if and when they're available; in the meantime, use our LitLovers talking points to help start a discussion for OVERSTORY … then take off on your own:

1. The Overstory is split into four sections: Roots, Trunk, Crown, and Seeds. How do those sections reflect the thematic numerous concerns of the novel—that human development (in the micro and macro) mimics growth in the "natural world," that human beings are deeply, intimately bound to nature?

2. Follow-up to Question 1: The Hoel family keeps a photographic record of the American chestnut tree in their field. In what way does this photographic record of the tree's life mirror the family's own life?

3. Of the novel's nine opening stories, which do you find most engaging? Is that because you find the characters more compelling …or the storyline itself … or can't the two be separated?

4. What do you make of Patricia Westerford's statement:

You and the tree in your backyard come 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 still share a quarter of your genes.

5. Westover also says, "Forests panic people. Too much going on there. Humans need a sky." Do you panic in deep forests? (Forests are different than the lovely shaded groves and glens where we love to picnic.)

6. How does the author treat eco-warriors: are they the novel's heroes? Does he seem sympathetic to their causes … or impatient with their stridency? What is your attitude toward eco-warriors, both the ones in the novel and the ones in real life?

7. Some reviewers claim that characters in The Overstory get short-shrift, that they are subsumed by the book's ideas. Others say the book's characters are convincing and invested with humanity. Which view do you agree with? Do the characters come alive for you, are they multifaceted, possessing emotional depth? Or do you see them as fairly one-dimensional, serving primarily as the embodiment of ideas?

8. Has Powers novel changed the way you look at trees? Have you previously read, for instance, The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, Lab Girl by Hope Jahren, or Annie Proulx's novel, Barkskins?

9. What might the title, Overstory, signify? What is the pun at its heart?

10. What of this observation on the part of the lawyer who turns to novels for solace but then seems to question their value?

To be human is to confuse a satisfying story with a meaningful one.… The world is failing precisely because no novel can make the contest for the world seem as compelling as the struggles between a few lost people.

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online and off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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