Home > 2010, 21st Century, American Literature, Nature Writing, Novel, Powers Richard > 20 Books of Summer #5: The Overstory by Richard Powers – a book tree

20 Books of Summer #5: The Overstory by Richard Powers – a book tree

The Overstory by Richard Powers (2018) French title: L’Arbre-monde. Translated by Serge Chauvin.

I decided to read The Overstory by Richard Powers after reading his interview in the review America where he talked about the fascinating world of trees and made me look at them in a different angle. I thought I’d give his sequoia novel a try.

The Overstory is a Sagrada Família book. Built like a cathedral with precise blueprints and with trees as pillars. Like a tree, it has four parts, Roots, Trunc, Crown and Seeds.

In the Roots part, we meet nine characters, Nicholas, Mimi, Adam, Ray, Dorothy, Douglas, Neelay, Patricia and Olivia. Each has a tree totem. They come from California, the Midwest or the West. All have a relationship with trees and forests. It comes from their childhood or they have a revelation later. They come from different backgrounds, two of them have immigrant parents. It’s hard to say how old they are but they’re born between the 1940s and the 1960s. Some will keep a remote relationship with trees. Some will turn into green activists or even eco-warriors. One is a scientist devoted to the cause of biodiversity. All are convinced that old forests are precious and need to be protected.

The Trunc part is where some of the roots meet and live together for a while. Crown sees them live apart, make their own way in life. And Seeds is their legacy. The structure of the book is rather clear-cut and it is intentional, Powers is too gifted for it to be random clumsiness.

I enjoyed Roots, learning about the characters, knowing they’d interact somewhere in the future. I liked the Trunc part but was a bit disappointed with the rest. I learnt things about the destruction of trees, either because of bugs or through the cutting for woods. I heard the argument about giving trees the status of a legal body. Lawyers can represent their interests in court, then. I was fascinated by the description of the workings of the ecosystem around the roots of the trees. They live in harmony with other living creatures, animals or plants. Scientist are only unearthing the complexity of the communication system between trees. Since trees don’t move and don’t interact with us, we forget they’re living creatures. And Powers points out, Noah only took animals and humans on his ark. I got it and it’s a valid argument.

We think with our times. When people fought against slavery, for women’s rights, for the independence of colonies, a lot of their contemporaries thought they were extremist and nuts. They were ahead of their time and now their vision is the norm. Did we make the same mistake with environmental activists since the 1960s?

Powers says you don’t change people’s minds with rational thinking, that humans aren’t wired that way. You might change their minds with a good story. I think he’s right. The Overstory is not like The Monkey-Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey even if some parts reminded me of the Gang. It’s less abrasive in it’s form, more consensual and more likely to reach readers with moderate thinking.

Back to the Sagrada Família book. I have mixed feelings about The Overstory. Powers’s writing is incredibly poetic and his sentences rustle like leaves in a quiet forest. The tree metaphor is everywhere. I suppose that it needed to be that long (730 pages) to mirror the longevity of the old trees it sings about. I had the feeling that things were coming along smoothly, that important facts were sown in a poetic vision of forests and trees.

I was captivated and bored. I wasn’t really receptive to some farfetched communication channel between trees and one of the characters, Olivia. I am wary of people with callings. I’m with James Lee Burke when he writes “I’ve had some experience with people who are always trying to right the world by wiping out large portions of it. They all have the same idea about sacrifices, but it’s always somebody else’s ass that gets burned.”

Everything is well orchestrated, like a symphony. Each character plays its own instrument, has its part and they are in perfect sync. It doesn’t mean that the characters are saints. They are adrift, mean sometimes and not always good spouses or parents. They try to raise awareness but symphonies are barely heard in the world of pop-music.

The Overstory is a majestic symphony. I acknowledge it’s beautiful just like I do when I hear classical music. But symphonies never manage to move me the way blues does. The Overstory didn’t tug at my emotions as much as The Book of Yack by Rick Bass did.

I’m curious about other readers’ responses to this book. Don’t hesitate to leave a comment.

  1. July 14, 2020 at 2:33 pm

    I really dithered over this book. I really wasn’t sure if I’d like it, but I gave in on impulse one day when I was in the bookshop. But I keep putting off reading it. It is so long!


    • July 14, 2020 at 3:28 pm

      I don’t think I would have bought it without this article, precisely because of its length. But I read it easily, so…


  2. July 15, 2020 at 6:42 pm

    So after the trouts, the trees? And you claim to be a city girl?
    I’m intrigued by what you say about the writing, and also by the setting, but not enough to get out of my comfort zone (assuming I have one) to read this particular book.


    • July 15, 2020 at 9:45 pm

      No trout in this one. 🙂 Yes, definitely a city girl. I wouldn’t want to encounter 10% of all the critters I might meet if I actually spent some time into the wild.

      It is an excellent book, no doubt. Not a perfect fit for me but still easy to read.


  3. July 16, 2020 at 1:10 am

    I’ve looked at this a few times but decided it’s not for me. Now I’m sure.


    • July 18, 2020 at 11:06 am

      I wouldn’t have recommended it to you. I’m not sure it needed to be that long.


  4. July 16, 2020 at 6:12 pm

    I’ve contemplated this several times but held back each time because it’s so long and I’m not convinced it would hold my attention throughout. I think you’ve also echoed one of the comments I’ve read elsewhere, that you can admire the writing and the art of construction that went into the narrative but it still doesn’t have an emotional pull


    • July 18, 2020 at 11:04 am

      Honestly, without this interview, I don’t think I would have read it but I’m still glad I did.


  5. buriedinprint
    July 30, 2020 at 6:29 pm

    This is one that I’ve finally ordered because I know it will take some time and I don’t want to rush with a library duedate in mind. There is a lovely coffee-table style book called Meetings with Remarkable Trees which I think will make a nice companion while reading. I’ve enjoyed the other book by Powers I’ve read, so I’m hopeful on this count too.


    • July 31, 2020 at 6:43 am

      It’s a remarkable book, for sure, I hope you’ll like it.


  6. May 16, 2021 at 11:19 pm

    I agree with your assessment- I enjoyed it but was also bored by the long passages of polemic.


    • May 17, 2021 at 7:32 am

      It could have been more convincing. I really recommend The Book of Yaak that I mentioned in this billet.


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