“The Overstory”, this year’s National Book Award winner by Richard Powers, may be the finest novel of 2018 so far (though Rachel Kushner’s “The Mars Room” is a close second). Since this novel was reviewed at some length in The New York Times Book Review by Barbara Kingsolver, one of my favorite writers, who’s also a scientist, I was inclined to give it a try, though it seemed from the review that the lead characters/protagonists in the novel are trees.
Well, trees are indeed the novel’s main characters, and Powers does an outstanding novel in explaining why to us readers–you may learn, as I did, more about trees than you ever thought possible, but what you’ll learn is absolutely riveting: this is, in ways, an environmental novel, and a radical one at that, and it’s also about creation, how the universe evolved and is still evolving; you’ll learn that humans share at least 20% of our genes with trees, too. That trees seem to separate the land from the sky seems visually obvious–if you’re looking. How trees communicate with each other in and through forests is remarkable enough, but the book also teaches us how thousands of other species live off of/because of trees, too.
Powers introduces a rather large number of human characters, all of whose lives either do or will involve some interactions with trees. As it happens, Powers is an incredible inventor of characters, and his array of them in this book is very wide; their movement towards self-knowledge and often love parallels the life and growth of trees and forests; you’re bound to have your favorites, and you’ll be rooting for characters as they root for trees. My probably favorite is Dr. Patricia Westerford, whom we meet as a child with a speech defect, but who has an amazing bond with her salesman father, as they travel on his business trips mainly throughout Southwestern Ohio and he teaches her about trees. She’s almost written off by the rest of her family, and her father dies young, but she’s already seen enough trees and learned enough about them to pursue higher education in , I suppose, botany and forestry. She will teach, and be burnt by academia, and do immense original research; she lives a fascinating and wonderful life, enriched by Nature and some of her secrets which Westerford will unravel and, of course,share with the readers. She also represents an entirely nonmaterial life/lifestyle, and is the richest person in the book (and possibly the nicest). A Chinese-American woman will link her past in China with her future in America both by becoming an engineer and eventually a radical environmentalist while later hiding her identity after “crimes” are committed to save trees (some of which are older than the time of Christ in California). An ancient Chinese painting and a set of three rings dating from ancient China will seem to both predict her future and unravel the past (where the environment, historically, in China was held in awe, before China started to industrialize). The last surviving son of a once very old Iowa farm family will hook up by seeming serendipity with a college dropout woman, briefly electrocuted, who awakens newly enlightened by “voices” she hears–credibly–and who is transformed by learning about trees. A Vietnam veteran is saved falling from a burning warplane by a tree ; he will later devote his life to saving them and planting thousands of new ones.
These characters weave in and out of the story line and each one becomes transformed in the course of the novel. When our characters come up against police authority and capitalist “ownership” of land, of course they will “lose” but other characters may represent a hopeful future for these trees (though one computer whiz/video game inventor seemed less credible to me as representing a future where computers will teach people what they’re losing). Dr. Westerford will invent a seed bank in Colorado where she hopes to save seeds for an unknown future, where it may be possible to reforest lands.
“The Overstory” is also incredibly moving as we see trees, if you will, through their own eyes, and learn more about Darwinian evolution and how trees and plants grow and reproduce because that’s their nature, but how they interact with each other and even save each other from pests and illness are part of the utter fascination of this novel. Every culture seems to have a Tree of Life integral to its origin myths and stories, and after reading “The Overstory”, you’re going to think more about these Trees of Life and what we can do to save not just them and their offspring but, ultimately, ourselves. “The Overstory” is a masterpiece.