‘The Overstory’ by Richard Powers – The Trees of Life


‘The Overstory’ by Richard Powers   (2018) – 502 pages


Trees play a bigger role in our lives than most people realize.  We take them for granted and allow lumber companies to cut down forests of thousand year old trees just so they can make a nice profit. The original forest in the eastern part of the United States is long gone, and in the west it is being rapidly depleted.

 “A tree is a wondrous thing that shelters, feeds, and protects all living things.  It even offers shade to the axmen who destroy it.”   

Demand for wood products continues to rise and old-growth forests are often the main source of much desired hardwoods.  Since 1600, 90% of the virgin forests that once covered much of the lower 48 states have been cleared away. Most of the remaining old-growth forests in the lower 48 states and Alaska are on public lands. In the Pacific Northwest about 80% of this forestland is slated for logging.  Elsewhere the widespread destruction of the original Amazon rainforest as well as other old forests is causing rapid global warming.

“This is not our world with trees in it.  It’s a world of trees, where humans have just arrived.” 

Of all the modern writers, only Richard Powers could turn this appreciation of trees into a more than readable novel.  Only Richard Powers could make this compendium of stories about trees entirely fascinating.  His prose is always refreshing, fascinating in its intelligence, and exhilarating in its seeming magical ability to make unlikely connections between natural phenomena and our man-made lives.

‘The Overstory’ is mainly about a small group of people who come together in order to save old forests from the loggers.  First we get the early biographies of each of these persons, what caused them to love trees in the first place.

“There’s a Chinese saying: ‘When is the best time to plant a tree?’ ‘Twenty years ago.’”  

They wind up in the Pacific Northwest.  First they attempt to disrupt the loggers’ activity by sitting in trees that are designated to be cut. Thus the protesters will stay in a tree for weeks or months at a time while the loggers, especially the logging company owners, get more and more angry.  Protecting these trees is a hopeless cause for these tree protestors as the police are on the side of the loggers and arrest the tree protesters when they can.  Just because a cause is lost doesn’t make it wrong.  Later the tree protesters resort to more desperate means.

You may have noticed above that this novel is over 500 pages long.  I have no problem with long novels that are fully engaged, but ‘The Overstory’ seemed scattered, diffuse, and unfocused at times to me. We readers could have done without a few of the eight characters or couples that are the main protagonists, especially those who are not directly related to the main plot. There is one couple, Ray Brinkman and Dorothy Cazaly, who could have been entirely omitted, and it would have made the novel better.  There is also the video game designer Neelay Mehta who really didn’t add anything to the story for me.  If the author had concentrated on a few less characters, he could have given those few more depth and thus made them more interesting.  Only one character, Patricia Westerford, was fully developed and therefore fascinating to me. It seemed like Powers was more interested in the trees than the people who populate this story.

As a polemic for the importance of trees for human life and for all life on Earth, ‘The Overstory’ is excellent; as a fiction not quite so much.


Grade:   B   


9 responses to this post.

  1. I wondered about this one! I loved his books in the ’90s, but I know he dictates his books on the computer and I wonder if that has changed his prose style. I read a sample of this online and wasn’t terribly impressed, but perhaps once it has been released in paperback…

    Liked by 1 person


    • Hi Kat,
      Whenever I start a Richard Powers novel, I am exhilarated by the liveliness of his prose which is like no other writer’s. My favorite Powers novels are ‘Galatea 2.2’, ‘Gain’, and ‘Generosity’. (Perhaps he should choose titles that start with ‘G’.) The same happened when I started ‘The Overstory’. Later, as often happens with Powers, he is so excited about his subject that the characters become mere sidelights.
      Despite my relatively low grade for this novel, I will still be looking forward to his next, because I see him as a strong prose stylist.



  2. I’m obsessed with trees (I have a lovely collection of nonfiction books about them, for instance), so this sounds rather an intriguing read. Will investigate further…

    Liked by 1 person


    • Hi Kim,
      I want to say that Richard Powers is a fantastic writer so don’t let my petty qualms stand in your way. I wasn’t a tree person going in, so maybe I am unreliable in that sense. The novel has turned me into sort of a tree person now.

      Liked by 1 person


  3. I love trees – despite the fact that my collection of books has no doubt had a negative effect on them…. But I get the point you’re making – polemical fiction can often suffer because the message becomes more important than the style.

    Liked by 1 person


    • Hi kaggsy,
      At least they make paper out of the cheap new trees called pulp rather than the old-forest hardwoods. I never did take to Kindle or streaming, so I too am still robbing the forest of precious trees.
      I only cared about one of the eight main characters in ‘The Overstory’. Some of them I had difficulty keeping track of.

      Liked by 1 person


  4. I adore The Time of Our Singing – it’s one of my favourite books – but this sounds like it could have done with some judicious editing maybe.

    Liked by 1 person


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