Richard Power’s The Overstory felt like kind of a slog to me. I liked the book, but at over 500 pages, it is not a short novel. Although it took me a while to get through, I did like this book and would recommend it to all the nature lovers out there.

The novel is the intertwined story of nine strangers (well, eight strangers, two are married to each other and their story is pretty much always told together) in the late 90’s/early 2000’s. Some of them end up coming together, some of them never meet or meet only briefly, but all of them are part of this larger story about deforestation and trees.

The novel opens with a section called “Roots” which fittingly, gives us a chapter on each character — (1) Nicholas Hoel a Midwesterner who grows up with a family Chestnut tree and does amazing tree-related art work, (2) Mimi Ma a second generation Chinese-American engineer who loves a specific little grove of trees, (3) Adam Appich a boy interested in science and psychology who goes on to research group think, (4) Ray Brinkman and Dorothy Cazaly who are married and start planting in their yard each year on their anniversary, (5) Douglas Pavlicek a Vietnam veteran who is disguised to find out that all the time he spends planting seeds is really hurting the environment (because companies can then log more older trees – “What do I do now, for the next forth years? What work can’t the efficiency of unified mankind chop into pure fertilizer?”), (6) Neelay Mehta an India-American who loves computers and is inspired in his programing by trees/nature, (7) Patricia Westerford a scientist who discovers that trees communicate and writes several best selling books about trees (which all the other characters read), and (8) Olivia Vandergriff a girl who after not doing much has a life changing experience that causes her to devote her life to activism for trees. Man, and that’s the first like 100 pages.

Nicholas, Mimi, Adam, Douglas, and Olivia all end up engaging in eco-activism together, and their stories kind of provide the plot. I still enjoyed Ray and Dorothy and Neelay, but I kind of felt like, this book didn’t really need those plot lines, I’m not totally sure what they added, other than that they are interesting characters. Although I guess having Patricia be the only one who doesn’t join everyone else would have been weird.

This novel is definitely a downer in a lot of ways, not only is it about deforestation (not uplifting, as Olivia explains, “Exponential growth inside a finite system leads to collapse. But people don’t see it.”), but lots of horrific things happen to each character basically from the word go — dead parents, near-death experiences, severe on-going health issues.

Much of the book is really beautifully, if densely written, here’s Nick talking about working in a warehouse:

The aisle rises on girders into an endless chasm of books. Dozens of aisles in this Fulfillment Center alone.  And every month, new Fulfillment Centers across several continents. His employers won’t stop until everyone is fulfilled. Nick squanders a full five precious second of his time-motion gazing down at the gorge of books. The sight fills him with horror inseparable from hope. Somewhere in all these boundless, compounding, swelling canyons of imprinted paper, encoded in the millions of tons of loblolly pine fiber, there must be a few words of truth, a page, a paragraph that could break the spell of fulfillment and bring back danger, need, and death.

I love this passage, while also feeling like, Powers could have killed a couple fewer trees himself to make this particular book if he’d been more able to convey and idea in a paragraph instead of ten pages.

I will also say that, not unlike The Sixth Extinction (non-fiction by Elizabeth Kolbert), this book conveys a sense that humans are only going to win for so long. It’s not the earth that’s in danger — we are. If (when?) we make the planet uninhabitable, the planet spins on, trees will be a big part of the environment recovering from the big species die-offs that are happening now. Give it 65 million years or so, some new cool stuff might be happening on the third planet from the sun.

Currently reading – Still working on Not that Bad and now starting N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy (time to get some lighter reading in).