Richard Powers loves trees. I mean REALLY loves trees. And even if you’re the kind of person who only notices a tree if it provides shade on a hot day, Powers’s new novel, The Overstory, will almost certainly change the way you think about them.
Powers introduces us to a disparate group of people whose lives are profoundly influenced by trees: a Chinese engineer living in the midwest, a lost young man who becomes a decorated Marine pilot, a self-absorbed, druggie college student whose near-death experience radically changes her life, and a shy, half-deaf young girl who finds solace in the natural world.
We then move forward to in time to become immersed in the life of a group of extreme environmental activists, in some cases the descendants of the original group of characters, in some cases the original characters themselves. Powers weaves his vast knowledge about how our forests are being destroyed into their story and wakes us up to care, desperately, about the devastation and its tragic consequences.
There have been several recent non-fiction books about how trees communicate, most notably Peter Wohlleben’s excellent The Hidden Life of Trees. Both Wohlleben and Powers tell us that trees communicate, have memory, take care of each other, and, in fact, that humans and trees are close cousins. I’m just one of those people, for better or worse, who learns about the world through well-told stories populated by human beings with all their brilliant flaws. So Powers’s book had a resonance for me I couldn’t get from non-fiction.
Many people discovered Richard Powers with The Gold Bug Variations, a (for me) difficult and complex novel about a librarian and an art-history Ph.D. candidate who team up to find out what happened to a 1950s molecular biologist who disappeared just as he was on the verge of cracking the genetic code. I fell in love with him when I read The Echo Maker, a novel with a heavy dose of brain science set amidst the sandhill crane migration in Nebraska. And The Time of Our Singing an interracial family story filled with classical music made me love him even more.
He’s often described as brainy but chilly, criticism that may apply to his early work. Not here. This book is tender and compassionate as well as erudite, a happy blend of science and art.
I should add I listened to this book on Audible. Every once in a while a phrase like “the polite applause of Aspens” would float by, making me want to underline it and go back and read it again.
“A forest knows things,” Powers tells us. Now I get it.