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The Overstory

shopping  A recent article making the rounds on the internet reported on an Idaho artist converting a 110 year old dead cottonwood tree trunk into a little free library. Before I read Richard Powers’ The Overstory, it never would have occurred to me to wonder how the tree felt about it.  Now, every time leaves rustle outside my window or a tree sways in the wind as I drive past, I listen  – not necessarily for messages from the tree but for the shift in my awareness.  Richard Powers has changed my perception, but it sadly will probably not last.

The Overstory is a long and challenging book, and its message should not be taken lightly.  Barbara Kingsolver in her review for the New York Times tries to explain the premise:

“The handful of readers who come to the book without benefit of reviews or jacket copy will believe it’s a collection of unrelated short stories…{but} These characters who have held us rapt for 150 pages turn out to be the shrubby understory, for which we couldn’t yet see the forest. Standing overhead with outstretched limbs are the real protagonists. Trees will bring these small lives together into large acts of war, love, loyalty and betrayal, in a violent struggle against a mortgaged timber company that is liquidating its assets, including one of the last virgin stands of California redwoods.”

Although Powers frames his narrative around the environment, with scary references not only to artificial intelligence but also to the extremism of the righteous on both sides of the conversation, he uses trees to tell the real story of civilization or perhaps the lack of civility.  I read the book slowly, trying to digest its depth; I attended a discussion led by brilliant and thoughtful readers who had read the book more than once, and still I wonder if I caught all of Powers’ intent.  Powers is a MacArthur genius and winner of what Barbara Kingsolver calls the “literary-prize Olympics” – way over the head of most of us – but he manages to integrate encyclopedic information on botany and computers with relatable perspectives in the lives of his nine characters, to nudge the reader to think about the bigger picture in this book.

If you read the book, it helps to take notes on the characters as they are introduced in the first section of the book, but, don’t worry if you mix them up or forget all their details as you continue.  The characters are there to be the understory, the familiar connection, but  the trees – here long before us – carry the message.  If only we would listen.