The Overstory

Written by Richard Powers
Review by Kristen Hannum

Author Richard Powers, in The Overstory, weaves together eight stories of people with stories of trees. Solid and simultaneously magical—a bit like tree rings—the paths of the novel ripple out and then come together as satisfying as a walk in the woods. The book’s protagonists live in different times and places, but all are connected by the trees around them: aspens, chestnuts, oaks, banyans, and more. The people include farmers, eco-activists, and immigrants, and their stories of love, inheritance, and loss, happening in our hurry-up human time frames, are played out in counterpoint to the trees’ time, “one spreading ring wrapped around another, outward and outward until the thinnest skin of Now depends for its being on the enormous mass of everything that has already died.”

Don’t let that quote scare you. Richard Powers is a prize-winning “literary” writer, known for bringing complex science and music into his books, but The Overstory is a classic; its storytelling is lyrical, accessible, and meaningful. Yes, he brings in a wealth of science about trees, how they communicate, how their roots twine together to make a single entity of a community of saplings, and more. But that information is elegantly offered; it doesn’t intrude into the plot.

By the novel’s end, I felt as though I’d finished a book that I would remember for the rest of my life. Readers hostile to the idea of protecting the environment probably won’t like it as much as I did; in fact, readers who vaguely support protecting the environment as long as that doesn’t interfere with growing the GDP might not like it as much. But for those readers who long for a well-plotted novel that brings together passion, science, and spirituality, The Overstory is a must read.