The Overstory by Richard Powers: A review

Trees compose the overstory on Earth; the rest of us lesser creatures and plants compose the understory. We humans in our arrogance and hubris designate ourselves as THE sentient beings. Little do we ken the emotional, intellectual, and social life of trees. We are only beginning to have the smallest inkling of how dependent we are - all of life is - on them.

Early in Richard Powers wonderful, monumental novel, there was this quote: 
"That's the trouble with people, their root problem. Life runs alongside them, unseen. Right here, right next. Creating the soil. Cycling water. Trading in nutrients. Making weather. Building atmosphere. Feeding and curing and sheltering more kinds of creatures than people know how to count."
Our root problem is, once again, our hubris. We see ourselves as at the pinnacle of all creation and we can't fathom the idea of something greater than ourselves.

Trees, after all, are plugged in to the Earth itself. Their roots run deep and touch the living heart of the planet. Moreover, trees communicate with each other. They form communities that support each other. If a tree is under attack, it may call on that community for assistance. Otherwise, trees compete with each other for their livelihood and they take care of their offspring, even, in some instances, giving up their bodies as nourishment for those offspring. But trees are long-lived. Many live hundreds, even thousands, of years and their time frame reference is very different from that of humans. So, even though we are ancient relatives and trees do essentially everything that humans do, they do it more slowly; so slowly that we, in our frantic pace, cannot see it.

Richard Powers is not the winner of a genius grant for nothing and he must know that people will not read a novel about the lives of trees and so, in The Overstory he gives us people and tells the story of the trees through their interactions with these people.

We meet the Hoels, Norwegian immigrants in the mid-west who plant an American chestnut, that magnificent and doomed tree of the eastern U.S. They document the tree's growth with pictures taken on the 21st of each month. It becomes an inter-generational family project. 

Chinese immigrants, the Ma family, have a connection to the mulberry tree. It's a connection that pulls the oldest daughter Mimi Ma, a respected engineer, back into the company of trees in her later life.

There is Douglas Pavlicek, Vietnam War veteran. When he is shot down during that war, his life is saved by falling into the limbs of a centuries-old fig tree. Meanwhile, the son of Indian immigrants, Neelay Mehta, has a much less happy encounter with a Spanish oak in California.

Most endearing for me was the outsider (these are all outsiders) Patricia Westerford. She has a hearing and speech impediment and, as a child, she didn't fit in anywhere, except with her father, who taught her about plants and soil and many of the creatures of the understory. He trained her to look, to really see and she grew to become Dr. Pat Westerford who spent years alone in forests doing her research. Initially, she was mocked by her peers for her discovery of the sentience of trees but later she became celebrated for those discoveries. And later in life, she meets Dennis, a misanthrope like herself, someone who finally understands her and with him, she learns that a successful marriage can mean only one hour a day spent together.

These are just a few of the human protagonists that we get to know. There are a dozen or more in all. One might be excused for at first thinking of this book as a series of short stories about these people, but it is so much more than that. Eventually, all of them are connected, even as trees in a forest are connected, and their stories merge in ways that we, with our limited vision, could not have foreseen.
"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..."
Well, Richard Powers has done the impossible. He has made the contest for the world compelling by showing it to us through the lens of the struggles of little, relatable human characters. The science is all there but it is translated and dished out to us in understandable bits. Brilliant!

I hope this book finds an audience. It needs to be read. Understanding it might just save our world. Not the planet - the planet will be fine - but our world, the world of human beings which, in the end, depends upon the continued survival and beneficence of trees.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars   



  1. What a lovely review, Dorothy, and fitting too! I have seen this book on Amazon and wondered what it is about because its cover looks oddly appealing, but I didn't care enough to investigate further. Now I know. It seems like your kind of book. I would read it if I had more free time this year, but I'm reading super slowly and my time is already accounted for the number of books I will be reading this year. :-o

    1. Just keep it in mind for your future reading list. I think you might like it, especially the historical aspects of it. But it is just over 500 pages so it represents a major commitment. Reading it took me about a week.

  2. I can guarantee this book will find an audience with me. I love how your review captures the true meaning of the novel.

    1. It is absolutely the most amazing thing I have read in a very long time. I was gobsmacked.


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