The Overstory, a tall tale by Richard Powers

The Overstory – won the Pulitzer Prize in 2019; cover design & art by Evan Gaffney, Albert Bierstadt/Art Resource

I get why The Overstory won a Pulitzer – it is a beautiful novel, lovingly whittled from the limbs of the natural world and our understanding of it, and part of a fine literary tradition of humanity overshadowed by the natural world, even as we fight against it. I loved this book; thought it was well-written, nicely plotted and planned, and features some beautiful prose that builds upon the themes of trees and nature. That said, this is a book written for the Pulitzer Prize, not for the enjoyment of the general reader, and I almost bounced off it a couple times in the first 150 pages.

The structure of the novel is deliberate, although I think it makes the book more difficult to read than it has to be. The sticking point for me is the “Roots” section where Powers introduces us to his characters, nine in all, one-by-one in chapters that tell us about the characters. In a few cases Powers goes back to earlier generations to tell us where they came from and who their ancestors were, which is a little intense for the novel format – hundreds of pages of introduction before we find out what these characters have to do with each other. I’m pretty sure someone as careful a writer as Powers considered interspersing some of the backstory with actual story, but he’s committed to the structure of the book mimicking the structure of a tree, or a forest. The first 150 pages are the “Roots,” introducing the nine main characters and where they come from, snippets of their family life, all with some formative experience in nature or with trees. The “Trunk” brings most of those characters together for the central conflict of the book, in northern California during the 1990s battles over logging and conservation. “Crown” brings the storylines to their climax and delivers the aftermath of those 1990s confrontations in the 21st century, and “Seeds” reveals the next steps of the surviving characters for the future.

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I also wanted to talk about the details of the book’s plot a bit, so spoilers ahead!

Our primary characters (Olivia/Maidenhair, Nick/Watchman, Mimi/Mulberry, Douglas/Doug-fir, and Adam/Maple all form an ecoterrorism ring, fire-bombing logging company sites and a resort construction area in the Pacific Northwest after being radicalized with a couple scenes of police brutality during protests in Northern California. The book was written a couple years before 2020’s eruption of protest and violence after police in Minneapolis killed George Floyd, which makes the police violence seem prescient, but I’m pretty sure the nature of police/protestor interaction in northwest logging is a known quantity from Powers’ research of the era and it’s just the rest of us who have awakened. I’m really impressed by the way Powers creates sympathy for the characters in the eco-terrorism ring and their choices. We’ve gotten considerable background on the characters by now, and their transitions and awe for Olivia/Maidenhair seem realistic to me. It’s also bizarre how sympathetic the choices they make to burn down a couple buildings, a completely insufficient gesture considering the size of the forces behind deforestation, can be in the hands of a capable author.

Of course, it all ends in tears. Olivia dies (for the second time) in a firebombing accident. The group scatters to the winds and vows to never talk about Olivia’s death. Twenty-plus years later, Doug is caught when a backpacker staying at his cabin reads his journals. He turns over Adam, who is now a Psychology professor at NYU and has two kids. Adam refuses to turn on the others in the group and is sentenced to two consecutive 70-year prison sentences, his wife tragically never understanding his choice.

Mimi escapes to San Francisco, becoming a wealthy staring-contest-therapist (yes, weird, but kind-of neat) on the proceeds of the artwork scroll from her grandparents in Shanghai, she struggles with turning herself in, but will not to protect Adam’s choice in protecting her. Nick becomes a guerilla artist in Alaska(?) – working to create art that reflects his obsession with trees and their protection.

I’m sorely disappointed in the use of the Patricia Westerford (forestry scientist who discovers arboreal pheromone communication well before its time) character and the Neelay Mehta character. They exist to show a counterpoint to the ecoterrorism ring – a different interaction with the deforestation crisis, from someone with the same reverence. It seems like the only reason these characters exist is for Westerford’s attempted suicide at the end, and a tiny note of hope in a bit of a tragedy. I think this is where Powers made a mistake – either make the story even more ambitious or relate major characters to the main storyline, not in minimal tangential ways – actually involve them.

Ray Brinkman and Dorothy Cazaly are similarly poorly related to the actual storyline in The Overstory. There’s but a single reference (“Their daughter at twenty, on spring break from college, in a sleeveless tank top that reveals a horrible new baroque tattoo on her left shoulder”) which I think is a reference to Olivia, and her actual parents who are almost absent from the story. So in an alternate universe where they had kids they would have been her parents? I like the end of the Brinkman/Cazaly story, but it just isn’t really a part of this book.

I do have to finish with the thought that I do love the emphasis in The Overstory on the durability of trees and forests. Our deforestation problem is huge, and should not be minimized, but we will never ‘pave the Earth.’ There will be trees and forests in the future; the real question is what kind of humans and human societies could coexist with them.