The Overstory ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
Richard Powers’ novel, The Overstory, is this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction. It’s a big novel, 500 dense pages, that took me almost three weeks to read. It’s a big story about big ideas. People don’t matter much where big ideas are concerned. You see, the earth has grown too overcrowded. The earth has to sustain seven billion (and counting) people. Trees are something that most people don’t ever think about. Trees play an important part in keeping the world functioning the way it’s supposed to. They replenish the air we breathe. Their roots keep the soil from coming apart. They provide food and medicine. Birds and small animals live in trees and rely on them for their livelihood. Trees are beautiful and capable of inspiring awe in insignificant humans—that is, those humans who are able to put aside their cell phones long enough to pay attention.
The world’s forests are dwindling at an alarming rate. The human race is an insatiable beast that must be fed. People must be kept happy and comfortable, oftentimes at the expense of the earth’s resources. People don’t seem to be aware of what’s going on, or, if they are aware, they don’t much care. Many species of trees in the world are extinct and more are becoming extinct every year. A few dedicated souls are establishing seed banks where seeds can be stored and replanted at a later time but, if the human race is dead, who is going to plant the seeds? Aliens from outer space?
All the characters in The Overstory come to see the importance and significance of trees, each in his or her own way and in ways that most people don’t ever imagine. Nick is a lonely Iowa boy-man. He’s a sketch artist who sketches trees. His legacy is a gigantic and unusual tree that graced his family farm for generations. His life lacks meaning until one day Olivia comes along and changes it for him. She’s a self-absorbed college girl, a self-described “bitch,” who is electrocuted in her room at school and brought back to life. After she is revived, she hears “voices” that tell her to travel across the country to California because ancient trees there are being sacrificed to “progress.” Armed with nothing but their “cause,” Olivia and Nick set out across the country to California, where they become “environmental activists.” They “tree sit” in a California redwood that is marked for destruction; it’s a thousand years old and hundreds of feet high. The idea is that the tree can’t be cut down while people are living in it. Nick and Olivia live in the tree for almost a year until they are forced out and the tree is cut down. The lesson here is simple: When you fight the law, the law always wins. From being an “environmental activist,” it isn’t a very large step to being an “environmental terrorist.” Nick and Olivia make the step easily enough, along with others.
There are also other interesting and compelling characters in The Overstory. Dr. Patricia Westerford is a tree scientist. If anybody in the novel can be called the “lone voice in the wilderness,” it is her. She advances the theory that trees communicate with each other, help each other, know how to heal themselves, and know when they are going to die. She sounds the alarm about the number of species of trees that are vanishing, but most people are not willing to listen. These environmental people are very passionate, willing to give up everything they have, to die, even, for their cause.
Neelay Mehta is an Indian-American who, from an early age, is a computer whiz. As a high school student, he falls out of a tree he is climbing and breaks his back. From that point on, he is a paraplegic. His stunted body doesn’t keep him from achieving success, however. He starts a software computer company that makes wildly successful computer games. Despite his wealth and success, happiness eludes him. He wants always to create bigger and better programs that mirror the diversity and complexity of life on earth. In this way, he is God in miniature.
The Overstory is long, involved, and mostly involving. Reading it through to the end takes a considerable amount of time and effort but, despite its environmental subject matter, it never seems preachy, condescending, or pretentious. As long as it is, it’s not difficult to grasp for the, let us say, casual or unscientific reader. I would never have read it if it hadn’t won the Pulitzer Prize. I’m glad now that I did. I learned some things and it opened my eyes on the subject of trees and forests and the few people who will do anything, go to any lengths, to protect and preserve them.
Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp