Reviews for The Overstory

by Richard Powers

Library Journal
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Standing as silent witnesses to our interweaving genealogies, cyclical wars, and collapsing empires, trees contain our collective history in addition to our climate record. Here, the acclaimed Powers (Orfeo; The Time of Our Singing) employs literary dendrochronology to weave the stories of nine strangers connected through their collective action in preventing a forest from falling to industrial harvesting and ruination. From a chestnut in Iowa to a banyan in Vietnam, trees function as a central theme for each character's backstory. As a corollary, foliage becomes a multivalent symbol of family struggle, divine intervention, and community. Just as Douglas firs connect their underground root structures to provide mutual support and protection, each character moves across disparate landscapes to find him- or herself joined in solidarity against an unstoppable force of environmental destruction. VERDICT Whereas Powers dissected the human brain's mysterious capacity to prescind subject from object in his National Book Award-winning The Echo Makers, here he pens a deep meditation on the irreparable psychic damage that manifests in our unmitigated separation from nature.-Joshua Finnell, Colgate Univ., Hamilton, NY Copyright 2018. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Powers' (Orfeo, 2014, etc.) 12th novel is a masterpiece of operatic proportions, involving nine central characters and more than half a century of American life.In this work, Powers takes on the subject of nature, or our relationship to nature, as filtered through the lens of environmental activism, although at its heart the book is after more existential concerns. As is the case with much of Powers' fiction, it takes shape slowlyfirst in a pastiche of narratives establishing the characters (a psychologist, an undergraduate who died briefly but was revived, a paraplegic computer game designer, a homeless vet), and then in the kaleidoscopic ways these individuals come together and break apart. "We all travel the Milky Way together, trees and men," Powers writes, quoting the naturalist John Muir. "In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks." The idea is important because what Powers means to explore is a sense of how we become who we are, individually and collectively, and our responsibility to the planet and to ourselves. Nick, for instance, continues a project begun by his grandfather to take repeated photographs of a single chestnut tree, "one a month for seventy-six years." Pat, a visionary botanist, discovers how trees communicate with one another only to be discredited and then, a generation later, reaffirmed. What links the characters is survivalthe survival of both trees and human beings. The bulk of the action unfolds during the timber wars of the late 1990s, as the characters coalesce on the Pacific coast to save old-growth sequoia from logging concerns. For Powers, however, political or environmental activism becomes a filter through which to consider the connectedness of all thingsnot only the human lives he portrays in often painfully intricate dimensions, but also the biosphere, both virtual and natural. "The world starts here," Powers insists. "This is the merest beginning. Life can do anything. You have no idea."A magnificent achievement: a novel that is, by turns, both optimistic and fatalistic, idealistic without being nave. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Publishers Weekly
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Occupying the same thematic terrain as Annie Proulx's Barkskins, the latest from Powers (Orfeo) is an impassioned but unsatisfying paean to the wonder of trees. Set primarily on the West Coast, the story revolves around nine characters, separated by age and geography, whose "lives have long been connected, deep underground." Among these are a wheelchair-bound computer game designer; a scientist who uncovers the forest's hidden communication systems; a psychologist studying the personality types of environmental activists; and a young woman who, after being electrocuted, hears voices urging her to save old-growth forests from logging. All are seduced by the majesty of trees and express their arboreal love in different ways: through scholarship, activism, art, and even violent resistance. Some of the prose soars, as when a redwood trunk shoots upward in a "russet, leathery apotheosis," while some lands with a thud: "We're cashing in a billion years of planetary savings bonds and blowing it on assorted bling." Powers's best works are thrilling accounts of characters blossoming as they pursue their intellectual passions; here, few of the earnest figures come alive on the page. While it teems with people, information, and ideas, the novel feels curiously barren. (Apr.) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Book list
From Booklist, Copyright © American Library Association. Used with permission.

*Starred Review* Nick, an artist, grew up on a family farm in Iowa famous for its regal chestnut tree. Patricia, born in Ohio with speech and hearing problems, finds inspiration in the plant world, studies forestry, and makes a controversial discovery. Adam, a science-struck boy enamored of ants, ends up majoring in social psychology and focusing on people risking their lives for plants. Douglas' life is saved by a tree when his plane is shot down during the Vietnam War; he later joins a tree-planter squad, attempting to compensate for the ravages of clear-cut logging. Engineer Mimi's father, a Chinese immigrant who invented the earliest prototype for the cell phone, planted a mulberry tree in their backyard in Illinois. Neelay, another child of a brilliant immigrant parent, a pioneering computer designer in San Jose, takes to coding as a boy like a leaf to sunlight, and even though he loses the use of his legs after falling out an oak, trees inspire the nature-based virtual realms he creates, which make him a video-game game god. All of these magnetic characters, and others, are introduced separately in Roots ; they then converge in Trunk, Crown, and Seeds, each a section in MacArthur Fellow and National Book Award winnerPowers' twelfth novel, a magnificentsaga of lives aligned with the marvels of trees, the intricacy and bounty of forests, and their catastrophic destruction under the onslaught of humanity's ever-increasing population on our rapidly warming planet. A virtuoso at parallel narratives, concurrent micro and macro perspectives, and the meshing of feelings, facts, and ideas, Powers draws on his signature fascination with the consequences, intended and otherwise, of science and technology as he considers the paradox of our ongoing assaults against nature in spite of all the evidence indicating impending disasters. The gripping, many-branched drama that unfolds here is a grand inquiry into how our hubris and unrelenting consumption and decimation of natural resources drives environmental activists to enact extreme and dangerous forms of civil disobedience. Olivia, a college student in Boston is oblivious to trees until a freak accident leaves her receptive to strange beings of light who, as the year 1990 begins, induce her to pack up her car and start driving west. Olivia has no idea why she's on this mysterious journey until she sees television coverage of people forming a ring around an enormous tree in Solace, California. The presences tell her: The most wondrous products of four billion years of life need help. Olivia finds her way to Nick in Iowa, and when they reach California, the lovers, like the real-life tree-sitter Julia Butterfly Hill, ascend 200 feet off the ground to live for months on precarious platforms erected on an ancient, majestic redwood under siege by loggers. Another bond is forged when Douglas and Mimi's paths cross at an endangered grove of trees outside her high-rise Portland, Oregon, office. Adam's tree-hugger research also puts him on the scene as they all arrive at the same place. And once each either witnesses or is subjected to vicious attacks by enraged loggers and contemptuous law-enforcement agents, they join forces and embark on acts of what they define as ecotage (vandalizing equipment to sabotage logging operations) and which logging corporations and the authorities deem ecoterrorism. Meanwhile, Patricia writes Rachel Carson-style books about the complex interconnectedness and intelligence of forests that galvanize the world. But can anyone stop or even slow the devastation wrought by the relentless tide of human growth and need? Powers' sylvan tour de force is alive with gorgeous descriptions; continually surprising, often heartbreaking characters; complex suspense; unflinching scrutiny of pain; celebration of creativity and connection; and informed and expressive awe over the planet's life force and its countless and miraculous manifestations. Powers elevates ecofiction with this profound and symphonic novel even as he pays subtle tribute to the genre's defining title, Edward Abbey's The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975), which, in turn, inspired T. C. Boyle's ecowarrior tale, A Friend of the Earth (2000). The Overstory takes a crowning position on a list of earlier novels about trees and tree-huggers and about the terrible consequences of ecotage or ecoterrorism as well-meaning convictions precipitate calamities and crises of conscience. Diverse in voice and timbre, the list includes The Living, by Annie Dillard (1992); The Tree-Sitter, by Suzanne Matson (2006); The Cookbook Collector, by Allegra Goodman (2010); The Widower's Tale, by Julia Glass (2010); Barkskins, by Annie Proulx (2016); and At the Edge of the Orchard, by Tracy Chevalier (2016). Powers wants us to see trees and forests in verdant and exhilarating detail, and feel the despair of those who know the magnitude and significance of all that is being irrevocably lost as forests everywhere are destroyed. As we rip apart the forest'sgreen web, we immerse ourselves in the cyberweb. Powers wonders, Will data guide us in reversing our doomsday folly? Will stories help us fully perceive, cherish, and preserve life? The Overstory and its brethren seed awareness and hope.--Seaman, Donna Copyright 2018 Booklist