Ms. Tracey Kast, one of my colleagues from the science department at Bago, recommended Richard Powers’s The Overstory last spring. I was in the mood for something contemporary to go along with my rereading of Jane Austen’s novels.
Since Powers’s novel is about trees, I was all in.
I love trees! I especially love drawing and painting them. I have fond memories of learning about the different kinds in my elementary science classes, planting new trees for Arbor Day, and sitting under shady branches with a good book.
The Overstory combines my interest in trees with my love of multi-perspective fictional narratives. The most elegant thing about this novel is indeed its structure. Powers structures the whole book like a . . . well . . . a tree.
The first section of the book — “Roots” — reads like an anthology of short stories where a different type of tree plays a significant role in the protagonist’s life. In the middle are sections called “Trunk” and “Crown,” in which the separate stories of each of the characters from “Roots” come together, interlink, and then branch out. The final section, “Seeds,” examines the new beginnings of the central characters.
I’m usually impressed by a good storyline. Still, if an author does something that creative with the structure of a book, I can admire it on its own, without a good storyline. Thankfully, The Overstory contains both beautiful design and story!
A descendent of Norwegian immigrants, Nicholas Hoel, is closely tied to the Hoel chestnut tree, the last of its kind, out of its element in Iowa. Nick, an artist, uses the tree and the Hoel family’s album of Hoel chestnut tree photographs to inspire his creations.
“With a flip through the photos, the farm memories come back to him: the holidays of his childhood, the entire clan gathering for turkey or carols, midsummer flags and fireworks. It’s all encoded somehow in the animated tree, the gatherings in each season, joining his cousins for days of exploration and corn-bound boredom. Flipping backward through the photos, Nicholas feels the years peel off like steamed wallpaper.”Powers 17-8
“What is it that you really want to make? He bared his hands to the sky, shrugging. Tiny wells of blood pooled in the center of his palms. Up from those pools grew two branching spines. He thrashed in a panic, back up to consciousness. Half an hour passed before his heart slowed enough for him to realize where those spines came from: the time-lapse pictures of the chestnut his gypsy-Norwegian great-great-great-grandfather planted, one hundred and twenty years before, while self-enrolled in that correspondence school of primitive art, the plains of western Iowa.”Powers 20
Mimi Ma’s story begins with her father, Ma Sih Hsuin, a Muslim immigrant from China. He comes to America to pursue engineering and escape the Communist regime taking over his country. His daughter, Mimi, becomes enchanted with his stories of his homeland, especially Fusang, “a magical mulberry tree far to the east, where they keep the elixir of life.” In fact, the Ma’s have their own mulberry tree in their backyard in Wheaton, Illinois, where Mimi and her sisters grow up. The tree haunts her as she, too, pursues engineering after the suicide of her father.
“It’s a single tree with two sexes, older than the separation of yin and yang, the Tree of Renewal, the tree at the universe’s center, the hollow tree housing the sacred Tao. It’s the silk tree on which the Ma family fortune was made, a tree to honor his father, who’ll never be allowed to see it.”Powers 30
“She wants only peace. But this is where she must live now: In the shadow of the bent mulberry. The inexplicable poem. The fisherman’s song.”Powers 46
As a boy, Adam Appich adores studying the behavior of insects. His father ascribes a specific type of tree to each of his children. Adam is maple, which turns as red as Adams does. Adam’s interest in why insects do what they do turns into an obsession over why humans do what they do. He finds himself studying psychology, all the while carrying with him his father’s identification of his son as a maple tree.
“The mere ideas that human behavior — his lifelong nemesis — possesses hidden but knowable patterns as beautiful as anything he once witnessed in insects makes his insides sing.”Powers 61
“He remembers how he once believed in some magic link between the trees and the children they were planted for. How he made himself into a maple — familiar, frank, easy to identify, always ready to bleed sugar, flowering top-down in the first sunny days of spring. He loved that tree, its simplicity. Then people made him into something else.”Powers 62
Dorothy Cazaly and Ray Brinkman — a couple with pretty mind-numbing jobs — find excitement and romance through community theater and travel. Nature plays practically no role in their life. However, they plant new plants for each anniversary.
“They’re not hard to find: two people for whom trees mean almost nothing. Two people who, even in the spring of their lives, can’t tell an oak from a linden. Two people who have never given woods a second thought until an entire forest marches for miles across the stage of a tiny black-box theater in downtown St. Paul, 1974.”Power 64
I actually emailed the publisher of The Overstory, hoping to know more about Powers’s inspiration for the character of Douglas Pavlicek (I never heard back). Douglas starts out as a “prisoner” in the Stanford prison experiment in the early 1970s. The psychological abuse he endures is horrific, but as if that weren’t enough, he joins the Air Force and fights in the Vietnam War. In battle, he ejects from his attacked plane and lands safely in a banyan tree. This struck close to home for me because the navigator– Lt. Col. Gene Hambleton — on my grandfather’s plane — Bat 21 — had a similar experience! It is the true story that inspired the book Bat-21 by William Charles Anderson and its film adaptation. There is a fantastic nonfiction book, Saving Bravo, by Stephen Talty. I couldn’t help but wonder if Hambleton’s story inspired part of the character of Douglas and his banyan tree! Out of gratitude, Douglas returns home to plant trees for a living and, ironically, finds pleasure in planting Douglas-firs.
“A tree saved his life. It makes no sense. . . . And he — he owes his own life to a tree.”Powers 83
“They look so pitiful, his tiny Douglas-firs. Like pipe cleaners. Like props for a train set. From a distance, spread across these man-made meadows, they’re a crew cut on a balding man. But each weedy stem he puts into the dirt is a magic trick eons in the making. He rolls them out by the thousands, and he loves and trusts them as he would dearly love to trust his fellow men.”Powers 90
Neelay Mehta adores computers and tinkering with technology. As the son of an immigrant from India, however, he struggles when his white teacher takes his plans for a video game. To escape her wrathNeelay climbs an oak tree. When he falls, he awakes, paralyzed. He loses himself in his world of technology and becomes a successful coder who creates popular video games. However, the oak and tress themselves branch back into his life.
“There’s a thing in programming called branching. And that’s what Neelay Megta does. He will reincarnate himself, live again as people of all races, genders, colors, and creeds.”Powers 95
“‘You’ve been through a lot,’ the doctor says. But Neelay has been through nothing. His body, perhaps. His avatar. But he? Nothing important in the code has changed.”Powers 104
As a girl, Patricia Westerford adventures along with her father, a surveyor, and develops a love for trees. Because of some hearing loss, she finds it easier to speak with trees rather than people. Later, as a scientist, she discovers that trees communicate with each other. When she shares her revelation with her peers, they toss her discoveries away as preposterous and laugh. After a failed suicide attempt, Patricia commits to working amongst trees in a national park. Her daily experiences affirm her hypothesis.
“She’s sure, on no evidence whatsoever, that trees are social creatures. It’s obvious to her: motionless things that grow in mass mixed with communities must have evolved ways to synchronize with one another. Nature knows few loner trees. But the belief leaves her marooned. Bitter irony: here she is, with her people, at last, and even they can’t see the obvious.”Powers 122
“She has gone to seed. Soon she’ll start to scare people. Well, she has always scared people. Angry people who hated wildness took away her career. Frightened people mocked her for saying that trees send messages to each other. She forgives them all. It’s nothing. What frightens people ost will one day turn to wonder. And then people will do what four billion years have shaped them to do: stop and see just what it is they’re seeing.”Powers 129-30
Finally, there is Olivia, a lost college student barely holding it together. Like magic, one night, she is electrocuted as she showers. She wakes up determined to fight deforestation.
From there, Olvia begins her odyssey to save the trees, teaming up with Nick, Mimi, Adam, and Douglas along the way.
It feels like there are one too many characters in The Overstory; I often forgot about some of them in between reading about other characters. But, for the life of me –if I were an editor — I couldn’t tell Powers who to cut. Each story is beautiful in its own right, which is why I probably like the first section the best since it reads more like an anthology of short fiction than a novel. It is easier to keep track of the story and the characters.
However, when the characters intertwine, branch out, and reincarnate, The Overstory is truly enchanting.
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Trigger Warnings: ableism; death; depression; divorce; graphic injuries; guilt; loss of a loved one; suicide; torture; trauma (PTSD); war