THE OVERSTORY, by Richard Powers
This book swept me away. I mean, lost deep in the forest, and not wanting out, swept away. At 512 pages, this was not a short or easy read, and it shouldn’t be. This is the story of our planet’s most important living creatures: trees. The fact that Richard Powers wrote a book about trees and their magical mystery and made it both compelling and personal, is why (in my opinion) his masterpiece won the 2019 Pulitzer prize for fiction. The way Powers weaves history (hence my shelf placement), nature and science, and fictional lives is compelling and seamless. This is a book that I feel I’ve been waiting my whole life for.
Okay, that’s a big statement, so let me tell you why. I am the product of a father who loved nature and the forest. He lived to be lost in the woods, and he shared that with me and my siblings. I lost him when I was only ten, but have always felt the pull to nature and the mystery of forest. I NEED to be around big trees and quiet woods, the way other people need to ski, read, or sing–– all things, I also love. From the first pages, Powers pulls the reader into a world where trees feel; reach out to us; speak a silent, mysterious language; fight for survival, and are ultimately rely on man, when man uses them carelessly and without understanding their importance on this planet.
Richard Powers weaves several stories over time and the history of people and the trees around them. These stories, different and compelling individually, all come together in the age of environmental activism and the fight to save some of the biggest trees on Earth. This tapestry of story telling is compelling and beautifully done. They meet in ways that might be missed, due to some of the nuances and clever storytelling. This book kept me spellbound through most of the book. Each story had its own fascinating arc, within the arc of the overall book. I looked up so many facts, and found myself looking at trees differently, even though I’ve always been a tree hugger.
There was a line in the book that has haunted me: “What you make from a tree should be at least as miraculous as what you cut down.” A neighbor recently cut down several massive (HUGE) evergreens in our neighborhood, and I burst into tears, having just finished this book–– I swear, I felt them crying. They were removed to get more sun on their yard. Those trees were at least 100 years old; they housed humming birds, and countless other species. They survived the sprawl of our town. And they were cut to expand lawn.
The Overstory has many of the stereotypical elements of Pulitzer winners: it’s verbose at times; it’s heady and intellectual, while telling a good story; it’s longer than it needs to be. But it won this elite honor because it’s that good. This book demands your attention. It’s not a book to read for fun. The subject is too important, and the stories are too detailed to read for distraction.
Since I finished, this book has continued to spin in my head. The characters in this book are living in my head. I’m hugging more trees; I’m thinking more about my impact in the natural world. The history here is on my mind. As we build a new home, I want to believe that what we are making something as miraculous as the trees that were cut down for the lumber. However, I’m not sure that’s possible. A tree can’t really be replaced. The Overstory is that rare book that I will read again… a long time from now, when the spell has finally worn off.