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Book Review: ‘The Overstory’

August 16, 2019 by Abigail Bostwick


I was introduced by a friend to the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Overstory,” by Richard Powers. 

“You will love it,” she said to me. 

“OK, I’ll add it to my list,” I replied. 

“No. You will love it,” she insisted. “Get it now.”

My friend was not incorrect. “The Overstory” is both a novel and a love story to the woods — to the connection between us and trees. In “The Overstory,” trees are not just scenery or a resource or even habitat. They are a living, breathing entity in the world given voice by Powers. 

The story itself is has several threads to main characters. First there is that of an Air Force loadmaster being shot out of the sky during the Vietnam War. He is saved by falling into a banyan. Meanwhile, an artist inherits a years of photographic portraits, all of the same doomed American chestnut tree. A partying college-goer in the late 1980s electrocutes herself, dies, and is sent back into life by creatures of air and light in the trees. Elsewhere, a hearing- and speech-impaired scientist realizes through his research that trees are communicating with one another and begins to hear voices he never has and some never can. This main cast of four, and five other strangers ? each summoned in different ways by trees ? are ultimately brought together in single and last and to save the continent’s few remaining acres of virgin forest.

“The Overstory,” is at heart, a love story to trees, to the woods, to their solitude and to the fleeting life that is not only theirs, but ours. The writing is stellar and poetic, giving the reader a perspective beyond one of just the typical narrator. It is a gigantic fable that reads as truth and remarkable poignancy. It is entirely different than a typical fiction read, though is neither a non-fiction book about the woods or a fairy tale. With it activism and heart, the book explores the conflict on the planet and how we are all interconnected, resourceful and invisible. 

“The Overstory” was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, a New York Times Bestseller, New York Times Notable Book and a Washington Post, Time, Oprah Magazine, Newsweek, Chicago Tribune and Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2018.

“What you make from a tree should be at least as miraculous as what you cut down.”

 

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