Book Review: The Overstory, by Richard Powers
Genres: Nature Writing, Drama, Eco-Activism, Fiction
Summary: The Overstory is a remarkable novel with a powerful message: trees are important and they are essential for life.
“This is not our world with trees in it. It’s a world of trees, where humans have just arrived.”
Richard Powers’ The Overstory is a novel about trees. There are compelling characters and interesting narratives centered on eco-activism, technology, and failed relationships, but trees are the driving force of this tome.
The novel begins with a section entitled “Roots” which paints the backstory for the characters (and the trees) that you will follow throughout the novel in eight magnificent short stories. The first, titled “Nicholas Hoel,” tells the story of the American Chestnut and the blight that wiped out nearly the entire species in the first half of the 20th century. Nicholas is the last of a long line of ancestors to document their isolated Midwest Chestnut Tree (Castanea dentate) through a photograph taken every year of the tree’s life. The result puts a tree’s growth through a lens that humans can visualize. This is also the case with the book itself. I am now fully armed with interesting facts about the American Linden (it has many medicinal uses!), the Paw Paw (its fruit is the largest edible native to North America!), and the American Beech (its requirements for growth are an indicator of good farmland!). From “Roots” we move along to the central narrative, progressing to sections titled “Trunk,” “Crown,” and “Seeds.”
It is the romantic way Powers writes about the trees that drive the story for me. One character describes how “‘Something marvelous is happening underground, something we’re just learning how to see. Mats of mycorrhizal cabling link trees into gigantic, smart communities spread across hundreds of acres. Together, they form vast trading networks of goods, services, and information.…’” Here and throughout the book, Powers highlights the secret worlds that trees create and thrive in and how fragile these ancient networks are. Human interference can be disastrous.
The Overstory is a remarkable novel with a powerful message: trees are important and they are essential for life. It is a message that we at Direct Native Plants firmly believe and hope to spread. “The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.”
Melissa works in the sales division of Direct Native Plants and has been a voracious reader since she was a young sapling.