By Richard Powers
Read March 2020
The Overstory has received much attention and some critics wonder why. This reader does and doesn’t agree with that question. While at times Powers can seem to beat his drum a little loudly, the novel is a great read for those who appreciate often delicious writing, multiple complex characters, several interpenetrating plot lines, and endings that aren’t tidied up with a bow. This book certainly offers all of that.
Powers begins the novel with individual chapters devoted to each of nine characters. These chapters are essentially short stories each providing a story about a character that will be either revisited in the rest of the novel or who will become firmly connected with the others characters being similarly introduced. This reader found the first such chapter to be absolutely beautifully written.
In this first chapter introducing Nicholas Hoel, we learn about several generations of his family. Newly emigrated from Norway, Jorgen Hoel meets and marries Irish Vi Powys in Brooklyn and they move to Iowa. They bring with them chestnuts which Jorgen plants into the Iowan soil. The trees and the family take root. In twenty-three pages we learn the story of the family and the chestnut trees they plant. Jorgen’s son John takes over the farm when his father dies and decides to photograph the chestnut tree with his newly acquired Kodak Brownie camera. He takes a picture once a month until he dies and his son continues the task. That Hoel tells his son: “Listen. I made a promise, and I kept it. You don’t owe nobody. Leave that damn thing be.” “He might as well command the giant chestnut itself to stop spreading.” Thus a set of over 1000 pictures of this maturing chesnut tree is the first artwork produced by this farming family. We meet Nicholas Hoel, a descendant of Jorgen, who goes to art school instead of becoming a farmer, and who will be an important character in this novel. We also learn about the blight that took out every Chestnut tree in the US. Powers thoroughly engaged this reader through his concise and beautifully told story covering multiple generations of a family and the maturation of the chesnut tree.
One complaint this reader has heard about the book is that it takes 153 pages to get all the characters introduced before the “real story” starts. This reader enjoyed each and every one of those 153 pages as interesting characters emerged from individual short stories about them which sets them up for engagement with one of the several stories in the novel: 1) activists desperately trying to prevent the cutting of centuries old trees in the northwest; 2) a boy who becomes CEO of a videogame company that captures the minds of players world-wide; 3) a couple whose relationship evolves over the course of a couple decades in ways they would never have predicted; 4) a budding scientist whose original and startling publication about interactions between trees is initially heralded and subsequently scorned sending her into a sort of exile from the world.
The only significant complaint this reader has about the novel is that after the initial set of chapters/short stories introducing the various characters, the book consists of only three chapter, the first being about 200 pages long and the second 119 pages long. In these chapters, all four of the major stories are progressed. This reader prefers shorter chapters that make it easier for readers who aren’t able to simply read through 200 pages in one sitting and who like to revisit parts of the book. The lack of delineation within these long stretches makes the latter action very difficult.
Powers can be a bit heavy-handed in trying to drive his points, but this reader appreciates his approach of using a story (or multiple stories) to engage people into learning new perspectives, learning about new cultures, and learning about new science findings. Regarding science and technology, which Powers often includes in his various novels, his character Patricia Westerford is likely based on real-life ecologist Suzanne Simard and the book she writes is likely a fictional portrayal of The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohleben. He uses his characters Ray and Dorothy to drive the case for books and reading. Both characters are avid readers but Ray (a patent attorney) reads only non-fiction while Dorothy reads only fiction. They try over their years together to convince the other of the value of their preferred reading material type. After a tragic even, they start reading both types together—-long novels and a book useful for identifying and learning about trees—and each comes to appreciate the usefulness of both kinds of books.
For whatever flaws readers will find in this book, and, given its length, breadth, and structure, many critiques are possible, Power’s The Overstory has much to be appreciated and enjoyed. It gives us new perspectives to consider. Likely its readers will consider trees very differently than they did prior to reading this book.