Column: Reading Richard Powers' 'The Overstory'

The most wondrous products of four billion years of life need help.” (p.165) 

In Richard Powers’ novel The Overstory, trees, the powerhouses of Earth, draw in a cast of characters from vastly different backgrounds.

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There’s Nicholas Hoel, whose family has spent generations documenting the growth of the Hoel chestnut tree with one photograph a month over a series of lifetimes; Olivia Vandergriff, whose college party days are stopped dead by her electrocution; and Mimi Ma, whose Chinese immigrant father instilled a love of trees in his three daughters.

There’s Neelay Mehta, whose fall from a tree made him a paraplegic, an accident which spurred him to create digital worlds that take gamers beyond the bounds of Earth.  And there’s Patricia Westerford, a dendrologist whose studies have brought tree communication to the attention of the scientific community and beyond.

There many more characters as well, each of whom has a moment of insight which focuses their attention on the plight of the forests.  Each is moved to do something to save them. Nicholas and Olivia, in fact, spend an entire year living in an old-growth tree to prevent its destruction. 

When Nick and Olivia team up with Mimi, Adam and Douglas, all of whom have been inspired to join the ranks of the anti-logging movement, they begin to plan their own actions that grow more and more dangerous.  Protests lead to arson, which leads to something far beyond what they expect.

Meanwhile, Neelay continues to expand his digital worlds, realizing that Earth can no longer meet the needs of human desire.  And Dr. Westerford continues her research, proving that trees have communication systems, can sense impending disaster, live in tandem with surrounding animals, and provide untold healing and pharmaceuticals to humans.

All of these diverse characters and stories are linked by the overarching story of the tree.  Powers fills The Overstory with scientific facts and a wealth of information about trees and the forest. 

Part epic, part popular science, part political manifesto, The Overstory is a riveting and timely tale.  As each character takes a stand to protect the forests, whether it’s in the protest camp or their own backyard, readers are forced to consider their own position and whether the long term damage we inflict on Earth can be justified by our ever-growing desire for more.

For other reading suggestions visit Richmond Public Library’s website at www.yourlibrary.ca/goodbooks

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