The Overstory: A Novel

by Richard Powers

Hardcover, 2018

Call number





W. W. Norton & Company (2018), 512 pages


An air force loadmaster in the Vietnam War is shot out of the sky, then saved by falling into a banyan. An artist inherits a hundred years of photographic portraits, all of the same doomed American chestnut. A hard-partying undergraduate in the late 1980s electrocutes herself, dies, and is sent back to life by creatures of air and light. A hearing- and speech-impaired scientist discovers that trees are communicating with one another. These four, and five other strangers - each summoned in different ways by trees - are brought together in a last and violent stand to save the continent's few remaining acres of virgin forest. In his twelfth novel, National Book Award winner Richard Powers delivers a sweeping, impassioned novel of activism and resistance that is also a stunning evocation of - and paean to - the natural world. From the roots to the crown and back to the seeds, The Overstory unfolds in concentric rings of interlocking fables that range from antebellum New York to the late twentieth-century Timber Wars of the Pacific Northwest and beyond, exploring the essential conflict on this planet: the one taking place between humans and nonhumans. There is a world alongside ours - vast, slow, interconnected, resourceful, magnificently inventive, and almost invisible to us. This is the story of a handful of people who learn how to see that world and who are drawn up into its unfolding catastrophe. The Overstory is a book for all readers who despair of humanity's self-imposed separation from the rest of creation and who hope for the transformative, regenerating possibility of a homecoming. If the trees of this earth could speak, what would they tell us? -- from dust jacket.… (more)

Media reviews

“Literary fiction has largely become co-opted by that belief that meaning is an entirely personal thing,” Powers says. “It’s embraced the idea that life is primarily a struggle of the individual psyche to come to terms with itself. Consequently, it’s become a commodity like a wood chipper, or any other thing that can be rated in terms of utility.” [...] “I want literature to be something other than it is today,” Powers says. “There was a time when our myths and legends and stories were about something greater than individual well-being. "
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Acquiring tree consciousness, a precondition for learning how to live here on Earth, means learning what things grow and thrive here, independently of us. We are phenomenally bad at experiencing, estimating, and conceiving of time. Our brains are shaped to pay attention to rapid movements against stable backgrounds, and we’re almost blind to the slower, broader background drift. The technologies that we have built to defeat time—writing and recording and photographing and filming—can impair our memory (as Socrates feared) and collapse us even more densely into what psychologists call the “specious present,” which seems to get shorter all the time. Plants’ memory and sense of time is utterly alien to us. It’s almost impossible for a person to wrap her head around the idea that there are bristlecone pines in the White Mountains of California that have been slowly dying since before humans invented writing.

Library's review

"Oh, that's that book about trees, right?" Ah, yes, but so much more. This is one of those "Great American Novels" that captures a wide swath and part of the essence of this country (with some notable parts missing, but we'll give that an understanding pass for now--one novel can only do so much). The trees, as sentient beings, form the core structure, with nine main characters whose generational stories weave with each other and their own unique relationships with trees, and provide a retelling of the U.S. environmental movement in the late 20th Century (following through with their lives up to present time). As the stories unfold and create a profound sense of interconnection (with each other and with the trees), there is a mixed feeling of doom and hope. May we all listen just a bit more closely. (Brian)… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member EBT1002
This is a brilliant novel. Set over time and following several families with some connection to trees, it explores the intersectionality of all life and lives: trees, humans, the earth. Some of the final (or almost final) members of the families come together but not all; part of Powers' brilliance is his success at creating connection even where one does not overtly exist. He clearly did a tremendous amount of research and I learned about biology and ecology even while engrossed in the characters' stories. His descriptions of the deep forests of the Pacific Northwest were perfectly evocative; I know those forests well and he captured their beauty and charm. The stories are compelling and the writing beautiful, the emotional impact is lasting. I finished it almost a week ago and I still feel like I am viewing the world differently. I've long believed in climate change but Powers weaves the fact of climate change into and through his characters' lives and established an essentialism that is, for me, profound. It's not just that climate change is happening; it's that, well, climate change is happening. Powers' novel is the first I've read that so effectively layers the story over that inevitability.… (more)
LibraryThing member arubabookwoman
In an interview, Richard Powers stated about The Overstory, "The whole book is a simple question: What would it take to make you give the unquestioning sacredness that you give to humanity to other things." Like many of his books, The Overstory contains a healthy dose of science, in this case ecology and the destruction of the planet by humans, but don't let that turn you off--there are unique and relatable characters, a compelling, page-turning plot, and it all fits together like a jigsaw puzzle.

The book begins with short-story length chapters each introducing one of the nine main characters. They are diverse and very real, but we are left to wonder how Powers is going to bring them all together. As the authorial voice states of the characters, "These people are nothing to Patty {one of the characters}. And yet their lives have long been connected, deep underground. Their kinship will work like an unfolding book. The past always becomes clearer in the future."

In the body of the novel, in chapters titled Trunk, Crown and Seeds, the characters converge, mostly around environmental activism, then separate and their lives go on. So yes, it's all connected with trees and forests, and it is told in magnificent prose. There's a lot of science here, but it never intrudes in the novel, and the focus is on the characters and their growth.

Powers is one of my favorite authors, although I haven't felt that his several most recent books are as good as some of his earlier books. He is a MacArthur genius, has won numerous literary prizes, always has something important to say, and always says it in a unique way. After reading this book, all I can say is:

I will never look at a tree in the same way again. Everyone should read this book.

5 stars
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LibraryThing member kukulaj
The book really gripped me. I read it in three days. Very moving.

It's about the ecological catastrophe that we are all racing into. Really it is just about trees, about the destruction of forests. Just one facet of the catastrophe, though certainly an important one. I think though that the trees just work here as a symbol of the broader biosphere.

This book poses the question - how might we respond to this catastrophe? Yeah, we could try to avoid it, to steer around it or hit the brakes before going completely off the cliff. Ha!

No, this is something that we - humans and the rest of life on the planet - will go through. Somehow this experience will be reflected in the evolutionary record, and be one of the layers that will make us whatever we will become. What will that be?

OK, I must say, I didn't get how the Ray and Dorothy story fit in. Could they be somehow some sort of Olympian Gods whose behavior is a microcosm that reflects the great story happening with the macrocosm?

Then there is like an artificial intelligence angle, practically a Ray Kurzweil vision. Well. Is the mind in the brain? The truth is that the mind runs on connection, on networking. The network that supports the mind doesn't really have any boundaries. It is probing the world, interacting with the world, enmeshed with the world. So maybe the Neelay story is exactly a criticism of the Kurzweil vision. Is our evolution beyond the catastrophe likely to include microelectronics? I can't quite see that.

Yeah I can't see how the bits and pieces really fit together. But this really is a profound symphony. The psychologist here, Adam, says that to change people's minds it doesn't work to use logic, you need to use a story. Here's a story that presents our situation at the enormous scale that really fits it.

I expect that many readers will see this story very differently than I do. It could be a story about a crime and how justice catches up to people. Could a more direct telling carry whatever message more reliably? I think the richness here will give me space to reflect for many months, mulling over the facets of the story. Maybe that is just the way depth is, it has many layers, so different readers will hear different ranges of layers.
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LibraryThing member ozzer
Powers has built a career on telling stories at the interface between literature and science. THE OVERSTORY is no exception. This novel tells the stories of a group of people who come to see environmental degradation as catastrophic for trees. It is overly ambitious in many ways. The themes are big and include man’s connectedness to nature, the struggle between profit and conservation, and the tension between complacency and activism in the face of catastrophe. The settings range all over the country and the century, but come to focus in the Pacific Northwest during the 90’s when activists confronted the timber industry. All of the characters are plainly idealists. There is a scientist whose research focuses on how trees communicate; an Indian-American software engineer who comes to see the relationship between botanical genetics and computer games after becoming disabled as a child by falling out of a tree; a bored college student who escapes death and strangely becomes compelled to activism for trees; a psych grad student who aimlessly wanders into a dissertation topic on the personalities of those who become environmental activists; an artist whose family annually documents the minute changes in a chestnut tree on their Iowa farm; a Vietnam vet saved by a fig tree when he was shot down; an Asian-American woman whose family escaped China and was invested in mulberry trees; and a disabled patent attorney who becomes a compulsive reader. Whew! Each plotline develops independently, but they merge as the novel develops much like Powers’ structure reflecting the anatomy of trees: Roots, Trunk, Crown and Seeds.

The ambitious cast of characters and stories seem unwieldy at times. Moreover, Powers seems bent on stuffing in as many scientific facts about trees as possible often to the detriment of the narrative. A bit more focus may have improved this read.
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LibraryThing member JosephKing6602
Another masterpiece! Very engaging content; mix of science and story-telling and character development. This book was more accessible than some of his other books. He remains one of my favorite authors; andi always anticipate reading his books, this one did NOT disappoint.
LibraryThing member labdaddy4
There were times the writing brought me to tears, there were times I felt lost, and there were times I was educated. This is a masterful work - a meaningful work. I normally don’t enjoy being lectured but this was different, this was a rare literary experience - one that had a real impact. I wish the tone had been more optimistic but I understand why it couldn’t be - it told the truth and the truth is so very ugly and sad. At times this book felt like a scream and a plea and a prayer all rolled up together.… (more)
LibraryThing member JFBallenger
This new novel by Richard Powers is absolutely great. Nothing I say could do it justice, but if you're struggling to imagine a future for us in the face the increasingly ominous news of climate catastrophe this may be the book you need.
LibraryThing member brenzi
As I read this book I kept thinking this has got to be Powers’ masterpiece, the best thing he’s ever done, his major life achievement, something he’s been working on for most of his life. It’s hard to think anything different now that I’ve finished the book. The detailed research is rendered on each and every page: trees, all kinds of trees, linden, oak, maple mulberry, banyan, douglas fir, fig, beech aspen, ash, and the mighty American chestnut to name a few, are all brought to life on these pages. To say I knew nothing about trees would be the understatement of all time. But I do now and I found this book compelling on so many levels.

Nine individuals whose lives have been impacted by trees in one way or another, somehow find a connection through those very trees and they make the decision to come to the aid of the virgin forests that are still in existence before it’s too late. They all act in different ways yet with the same objective. But the real protagonist is that virgin forest and each individual tree that adds something to our lives each day.

Make no mistake, this is a magisterial novel written with nuance and intelligence that makes you think. Powers is able to write with such urgency and style that he can’t help but convince readers that trees are able to communicate in many ways. (Scientific evidence proves this.) I felt such a connection with these characters and also with these trees. I would’ve never thought.

Very highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member PeskyLibrary
A socially conscious (sometimes preachy), long, multi-storied novel about trees? Yes, please. Overstory by Richard Powers sounds a little crazy and difficult--and it is--but for me it was well worth the effort. There are a lot of characters roaming around whose narratives sometimes intersect and sometimes not, but all are circling around trees and people’s destruction of the planet through deforestation. The large array of characters represent almost every environmental stance and socio-economic level out there--from homeless, tree planting veteran to billionaire software developer demonstrating the environment’s effect on all of us. Powers also plays with structure and pacing to create a complicated and deeply engrossing book that I recommend to anyone up for the challenge. PK… (more)
LibraryThing member Schmerguls
5640 The Overstory A Novel by Richard Powers (read 21 Jul 2019) (Pulitzer fiction prize in 2019) With my reading of this book I can again say I have read every book which has won the Pulitzer prize for fiction--by my count 93 books. Included in that group are many great books, such as the winner for 1947, All the King's Men, which I read on 21 Sep 1958, and the winner for 1961, To Kill a Mockingbird, which I read on 8 May 1961, and the winner for 1975, The Killer Angels, which I read on 11 May 1981. And many others. But lately I find such winners disappointments. This year The Overstory won so I have now read it. I found it really a chore to read. It tells of people who seek to prevent the cutting down of trees, which I can see as an aim which might be sought. But the book is loaded with extravagant and hyperbolic language which I found extremely off=putting. I could not admire people sitting 200 feet in the air atop a tree as anything a sensible person would do. I thought there surely were better things to do to try to save trees and thought action in court would be interesting but the court action is passed over with little explanation . So I read the over 500 pages in the book and was surely glad to reach the last page. As I read I thought how great it would be to be reading something more sensible and meaningful. I hope next year the Pulitzer prize for fiction will be given to fiction more grounded in reality.… (more)
LibraryThing member booklove2
A 500 page novel about trees? Yes, please! But what is lovely here is that Powers has a fantastic ability to split the stage between both the trees, and also a vast cast of human characters. I was enthralled with most of the characters' life story in only twenty or so pages. An excellent introduction to the characters that was neither too much or too little. That might be Powers best trick here, and also my favorite part of the book. The chapters in the beginning that each character has on their own, but also shows the impact trees had on their life. But the overall layout of the book is genius: with sections of the book called 'roots', 'trunk', 'crown', and 'seeds', the characters beginnings start in the 'roots' section, the characters start to come together in the 'trunk', mainly to fight for the trees. The characters separate again in 'crown' like the branches of a tree, and what will come next, for the characters and humans in general in 'seeds'. Absolutely brilliant. With the setup chapters in the beginning, I was completely enthralled, especially with the amazing job of making me cry about some of these characters within twenty pages. Some characters might fall into a tree and be saved in Vietnam, others might fall out of a tree and be permanently damaged. But the larger chunk of the book seemed to take too much space for what plot there was. And the end definitely could have been bigger with what comes later. The book hints at something after humans, and I would have liked to see that explored more. So much could be done there! However, the always surprising notes about trees are there on every page, worth reading the book alone, and Powers probably could have filled another book with these tree facts. I think part of what Powers wanted to do was show each reader how little they actually know about trees, especially to get them to care more about trees than they probably already do. I have always thought trees are amazing and essential. They create oxygen, if there needs to be any other reason! This is the first book I've read by Powers and I can't help but think that this one is different from the others. Maybe more of an urgent message than the others? But it certainly won't stop me from being eager to read more from him.… (more)
LibraryThing member angiestahl
Picked this up because it shortlist for the Booker, even though Bookers are sometimes hit and miss with me.

Love the idea/concept of the book - that trees are sentient beings that communicate with each other and sometimes with people with the ability to listen. I appreciate that it's found readers who love and connect with it.

But. While I like a book that makes me think, to me, this one crossed the line to pretentiousness. It's weighty in its self-importance and bogged by eco-preachiness to the point of becoming a bore. A couple hundy pages in, it felt like self-flagellation to continue. I moved on.
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LibraryThing member RidgewayGirl
Richard Powers's latest novel begins with several chapters that read like short stories in which a person's connection to a specific kind of tree is explored. This part of the novel is excellent. From there, Powers widens the story and the various characters interact in different ways as each one reaches the conclusion that saving the trees is important. But the action they end up taking has deadly results.

This is a big book, both in scope and in size. The environmental issues Powers addresses are urgent and important. And a theme of this novel is how the only thing that can change minds is a good story. This is pointed out more than once, in increasingly ham-fisted ways. Unfortunately, this is not that story.

This story is bloated and overwrought. There isn't a nuance or a speck of humor to be found. And we'll leave Powers's skill at portraying women alone except to say that one woman is described using the words of a One Direction song.

I regret the hours spent reading this novel.
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LibraryThing member browner56
Three generations of an Iowa family has been taking monthly pictures of a chestnut tree in their yard for almost a century, although they can no longer remember why. The daughter of a Chinese immigrant must carry on after her father commits suicide under the crumbling mulberry in the family’s yard. A socially awkward Illinois boy grows up with the maple tree planted to commemorate his birth as his only constant companion. A Minnesota couple on their first date audition for an amateur production of Macbeth and fall in love while the oaks of Birnam Wood march to Dunsinane. Near the end of the Vietnam war, a serviceman ejects from his burning plane only to have his plunge broken—and his life saved—by the branches of a banyan tree. In California, a paraplegic computer programmer finds inspiration for his next project while staring at the exotic grove on the campus where he works. A botanist finds her way back from professional disgrace in the Oregon woods amongst the Douglas firs she loves so much.

What is the common theme connecting each of these stories? Trees, of course! But then saying that Richard Power’s earnest and impassioned novel The Overstory is about trees is like saying that Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea is about deep sea fishing: it is a true statement that misses the real point. Indeed, far more than being a simple descriptive exercise about how trees function, this book is nothing short of a deeply felt plea to save one of the world’s oldest and most vital natural resources from the man-made threats they face. To be sure, this is story-telling; each of the preceding narrative threads coalesce in various ways through another involving a college girl who is electrocuted but called back to life by “beings of light” to save the ancient forests from being destroyed in the name of economic expedience. However, it is also fiction that has been written with such an overt environmental agenda that it creates a somewhat confusing sense of purpose for the reader.

Powers is a writer that I really admire, having read all of his previous novels over the years. And while I did enjoy reading The Overstory as well, I did not find it to be nearly as compelling as the best of his previous work (e.g., The Goldbug Variations, The Time of Our Singing). Without question, this book has all of his usual flourishes: intricate and intellectually engaging storylines, sympathetic and fully imagined characters who fight the good fight, brilliant use of language. This time, though, the underlying “man vs. nature” message was delivered in such a heavy-handed manner that it overwhelmed any other nuances that the multiple woven tales might have offered. Dialogues between characters, usually so realistic in the author’s work, here often seemed contrived, as if entire conversations were really just setups to deliver a memorable punch line about the power and majesty of trees. Also, I found the eco-terrorism plot that drives much of the narrative to be over-the-top and unrealistic; it may just have been the most convenient way to promote the book’s true cause. So, while I definitely learned a lot from this novel, it did not affect me quite as deeply as the author probably hoped.
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LibraryThing member msf59
“The Northwest has more miles of logging road than public highway. More miles of logging road than streams. The country has enough to circle the Earth a dozen times. The cost of cutting them is tax-deductible...”

“The world had six trillion trees, when people showed up. Half remain. Half again more will disappear, in a hundred years.”

“When you feel good after a walk in the woods, it may be that certain species are bribing you. So many wonder drugs have come from trees, and we haven't yet scratched the surface of the offerings. Trees have long been trying to reach us. But they speak on frequencies too low for people to hear.”

This novel blew me away! I am not going to describe much of the twisty plot, but I will say, that it begins slowly, as we are introduced to a number of diverse characters, and how most of them are touched, in some way by trees. The middle of the novel, brings these characters together, as they team together to fight an environmental cause. The last third, shows how these events, have effected each of these people, in the years to come. The writing here is smart and powerful. The author has done impeccable research and his passion for his subject matter, is apparent on every page. It only flags a bit, in the final 100 pages, but not enough for me to change my 5 star rating.
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LibraryThing member nmele
There were times when I wondered how Powers would draw all his many plot threads and characters together, but I shouldn't have doubted. This is a sprawling novel which spans generations and genres, tied together by trees: their overstory, their abuse by humans, and their value. It is also fun to read.
LibraryThing member strandbooks
I never heard of Richard Powers but after reading Barbara Kingsolver’s review in the NYtimes I immediately added it to my list. This book is beautiful, emotionally exhausting and made me want to reread the moment I finished it. If I could be in an author’s mind for one day to see how it worked, Richard Powers would definitely be near the top of the list.
Trees are truly the main characters but the humans in it are the right balance of flawed, naive, bumbling through life and complex. It is a novel about environment, human destruction/progress and our psychology of continuing on our path. I want someone else to read it so we can discuss! There are some characters and plot twists I really need to understand, I.e some alternate universe and AI stuff that my brain struggles to grasp
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LibraryThing member Carolesrandomlife
This book was a little different than the books that I usually pick up. I like different so I was eager to give this one a try. I found that I enjoyed this book the most when I read just a little bit at a time so I spent over a month with this one working it around other books. It was a book that I found fairly easy to set aside but I always seemed to circle back to it before long. While I didn't love the book, I did like it and am glad that I decided to give it a try.

I knew that this was a book about trees before I started reading and it was. Kind of. Trees do play a very large role in the story but I really saw this as a book about people. The book was told through the stories of several people whose lives were shaped or touched by the trees and nature around them. Each of the characters had a unique and special relationship with the world around them and I was inspired by the measures that they took to protect their world.

The book initially reads like a collection of short stories. We meet each of the characters in their younger years, usually as either children or teens, and see how trees have impacted their lives. Then the book shifts gears and the lives of these characters start to converge and they start to have an impact on each other. As the book drew closer to the end, the characters untangled themselves from each other and went back to a separate existence.

I enjoyed each of the characters' stories but the strongest part of the book for me was when the majority of the characters were together worked towards a shared cause. I really felt their passion as they worked to save the trees and the environment as a whole. The book lost a lot of momentum for me as it drew to a close. I found that the characters were not nearly as interesting apart as they had been together and the story became quite depressing.

I did find the writing to be quite beautiful. The descriptions used really brought nature to life and made me want to see it preserved. I felt the impact of its destruction and understood why the characters were willing to sacrifice so much to protect what they could. I do think that this book could have been trimmed a bit. It did feel overly long at times. There was one character that had a story that was really very separate from the other characters and could have been completely omitted in my opinion.

I am glad that I read this book. It made me really think about our environment and the impact of our behaviors on the world around us. I wouldn't hesitate to read more from Richard Powers in the future.

I received a copy of this book from W.W. Norton.
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LibraryThing member kewing
The focus of this powerful and meticulously written, emotionally charged novel is the lives of intersecting characters and their relationship with trees. Is it possible to distinguish the story from the apparent political intent of the novel? As a member of the "chorus," I like the lyrics and melody delivered by the storyline. Yet, that storyline lacks a fully developed antagonist, a melodic counterpoint, along the lines of polyphony, that would (for me) increase the emotional effect. The novel is full of pithy observations--"'You can't see what you don't understand. But what you think you already understand, you'll fail to notice.' ... Most keep dead still, waiting for education to pass over." (p. 439)--including some self-referential ones--"Passion everywhere, and bursting with details, but without much structure. His words just branch and bud and branch again. It keeps him busy. It beats cabin fever, though some days not by much." (p. 386) The city where I live recently cut down several acres of mature oak trees (as well as invasive buckthorn), now it's a level dirt field awaiting the equipment and people to build a generic big box discount retail chain store and parking lot. Powers seems to write his own review in this quote from the novel: "To be human is to confuse a satisfying story with a meaningful one, and to mistake life for something huge with two legs. No: life is mobilized on a vastly larger scale, and the world is failing precisely because no novel can make the contest for the world seem as compelling as the struggles between a few lost people." (p. 383). I'm very sympathetic to the message in The Overstory and I am in awe of Powers' careful construction of sentences and delineation of characters (which accounts for my rating), but it's too much of a single melody when I was expecting polyphony: Powers provides a meaningful story, but in the end it's not very satisfying.… (more)
LibraryThing member MM_Jones
A truly incredible piece of fiction so intertwined with actual occurrences and a healthy dose of science. The branching architecture of the book is to be appreciated in its similarity to the structure of a tree. Opposite of a "page-turner", I wanted to savor each of his character introductions as a gem in itself. Perhaps a bit long, especially when listing.… (more)
LibraryThing member kayanelson
2019 TOB--The problem with such a wonderful book is that I wonder what I missed. This book had a wonderful plot but more important than that it had wonderful thoughts and messages. It's a book I should probably re-read--maybe even listen to. And the book was filled with information--lots and lots of information. Clearly I loved this book.… (more)
LibraryThing member cmt100
A profound, brilliant book. A living thing. A gift.
LibraryThing member anitatally
It is truly a masterpiece - nothing I could say would do it justice. It has to be read more than once to get even a small percentage of the subtlety, the sweep, the drama. It's an amazing book.
LibraryThing member splinfo
amazing book idea, well written and powerful. Not for the feint hearted. Sobering look at what it might take to rightly stop the capitalist machine.
Am I ready to chain myself to a tree?




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