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Richard Powers: The Overstory

I have said it before and I shall doubtless say it again: there is no doubt in my mind that Richard Powers is one of the foremost living US novelists. His books are usually long and detailed, tell multiple stories and are full of interesting ideas and themes. This one is no different in that respect. It tells the stories of eight individuals/families, all of whom seem to have some key event in their life connected to a tree or to trees and all of whom are, we suspect, going to come together somehow but that somehow will neither be obvious nor easy.

As mentioned above, the theme of the book is trees. We all know that trees are important to our planet for many reasons. Here is a British point of view on the subject and here is a US one. My apologies to other nationalities but I am sure you can find a similar article for your country. I am very fortunate that, from where I am sitting, I can see well over a hundred trees and at least twenty different species. Sadly, as we know and as Powers makes very clear, lots of people are chopping down lots of tress all over the planet, to the detriment of the health of humans and, indeed, of most other land-based species.

We start with a man who we know liked trees: Thoreau. He is present, somewhat unwillingly, at an annual event, a time when people threw stones at chestnut trees to bring down the chestnuts. Thoreau feels he is casting rocks at a sentient being, with a duller sense than his own, yet still a blood relation. This idea is, to a great extent, the theme of this book.

One of the people collecting chestnuts at this event is Jørgen Hoel, a Norwegian immigrant. Hoel will marry Vi Powys, an Irish immigrant and they will move out West, specifically to what is now Iowa. When there, Hoel, will find six chestnuts in the pocket of his coat and he plants them. Five, sooner or later, will die. One survives and grows into a magnificent tree.

His son, John, acquires a camera and takes a photo of the tree. He will do so on the twenty-first of every month. He passes on this tradition to his son and the tradition continues. At the same time, we learn about chestnuts in the US. At one time they were the redwood of the East Coast. There were huge forests of them everywhere. However, a fungus came into the US and soon spread to the chestnuts everywhere. Chestnuts were chopped down before they were infected so that, eventually, there were few left. However, the Hoel chestnut, perhaps because it was isolated or perhaps because it was resistant, survived.

Like other families in this story, the Hoels have their tragedy and, eventually, we come down to the current Hoel, Nick, an artist. It is he that will continue the story and join up with other characters from this book.

Our next character is Ma Sih Hsuin, who immigrates to the US from China when Mao is about to take over. He has three daughters and a mulberry tree. This mulberry tree is important to him because, of course, it symbolises the silk industry from his native China. Winston, as he is now called, seems to invent the car phone. However, when his mulberry tree seems to die, so does he. He is not the only character in this book whose life and death are directly linked to the life and death of a specific tree. It is his daughter, Mimi, a ceramic engineer, who will carry the torch and link up with others.

We next follow Adam Appich whose parents plant a tree for each child they have (Adam’s is a maple). Adam takes an interest in nature from an early age though he has difficulty with people. Humankind is deeply ill. The species won’t last long. It was an aberrant experiment. Soon the world will be returned to the healthy intelligences, the collective ones. The collective ones he mentions are primarily ants. He is by no means the first person to mention that ants will one day rule the world.

However, it is psychology that becomes his interest and he follows a writer and teacher who says Humans carry around legacy behaviours and biases, jerry-rigged holdovers from earlier stages of evolution that follow their own obsolete rules. What seem like erratic, irrational choices are, in fact, strategies created long ago for solving other kinds of problems. The practical study of this irrational human behaviour will bring him back to trees.

Ray Brinkman and Dorothy Cazaly have an on-again, off-again relationship several times over. She is likened to Lady Macbeth who, of course, was done in by trees.

Douglas Pavlicek is an orphan when young and ends up in the US forces in South-East Asia as a loadmaster. When he crashes, it is a banyan tree that saves his life. When driving in the West, he sees the parades of trees either side of the road but, when looking further, he sees that behind the tree-lined roads, there is devastation, as the trees have been clear-felled. He takes up a job of replanting trees.

Neelay Mehta is an Indian-American and a computer expert. He falls out of a tree and becomes paraplegic. However, he becomes a top video game programmer, making a lot of money and designs a game called The Sylvan Prophecies.

Patty Westerford learned about trees from her father and has been obsessed with them ever since. She studies trees at college and eventually does a research project, where she shows that trees are social creatures, whereby a tree which is attacked by an infestation is able to warn other trees of this, and they can then increase their defences. The paper is hailed and then damned as a sloppy piece of work by experts. She loses her job and becomes a wilderness ranger. However, she is later vindicated and her ideas become not only accepted by others but become a core theme of this book.

Lastly, we have Olivia Vandergriff who starts off studying actuarial science but abandons it, four months before her final exams, for trees. Her parents are horrified.

Inevitably, most of these people link up with others to defend trees from large logging companies and the government that is giving away public land to loggers. They protest. They are beaten, even tortured, fired from their jobs and harassed all the time, but they do not give up. As one character points out, the country gradually moved from accepting that only white US-born males had rights to accepting the rights of women, people of colour and other minority groups. Since then the rights of animals have come to be accepted. Now it is the turn of plants, particularly trees. Interestingly enough, this story was in yesterday’s paper.

However, to oppose the power of the government, the logging companies and the police, our heroes have to turn to illegal methods and that means that the full force of the law is going to come down on them. With a lesser writer, this could have meant a straightforward story of the power of the state versus the power of the individual. Powers is far too good a writer to fall into that trap. Yes, of course, that is very much part of it, as it must be, but the ending – and we are still along way from the end when this happens – is much more complex. Indeed, the way the different characters react (and not all of them were involved in the illegal activities) is very much a key component of this novel. Indeed one of them spends time working for Amazon (the company, not the river).

The world had six trillion trees, when people showed up. Half remain. Half again more will disappear, in a hundred years. Powers clearly wears his heart on his sleeve in this novel. He is in no doubt and his main characters are in no doubt that we are destroying too many trees too quickly and this is going to have profoundly negative consequences for the plant, humans and all other species.

This is not, of course, all about the United States. One of the loggers points out that it is far worse in Brazil and China. Thailand and Indonesia are also mentioned. It is doubtless worse in many other countries. Similarly, the oppressive forces of the state are undoubtedly massed against those who oppose logging in other countries, as they are in this book in the United States.

Whenever you read a Richard Powers novel, you are left with a lot to think about. He gives you lots of interesting facts and lots of interesting idea, no more, perhaps, than in this book. Anyone reading this book will want to learn more about this issue and cannot fail to give it a lot of thought. However, it is not just a book of interesting ideas but a very well written, entertaining and challenging novel which confirms Powers as one of the major living US writers.

Publishing history

First published 2018 by W W Norton