Book Review: The Overstory

The Overstory
Richard Powers

This is a novel that will keep you thinking long after you have finished reading it. Part One (called “Roots”) is almost a stand-alone collection of short stories about each of nine main characters in the book. Their stories all are very different, but extremely compelling, and sometimes heartbreaking. Some of them actually made me tear up. By the end of this section, I was hooked. Powers creates a powerful cast of characters.

In parts two through four (all named after other tree sections), Powers draws all the lives and people together into an intertwined story about activism and resistance. Every character’s life intersects with others through their connections to trees. This part of the book is perhaps not quite as well executed as the opening section, but Powers is a beautiful writer, so it is hard to stop reading.

Powers is also skilled at weaving volumes of factual information into his fiction. I learned so much about trees and the forest ecosystem, and particularly about old growth. It reminded me of reading one of John McPhee’s books, where you learn so much about a subject it makes your brain hurt. Sometimes I found myself questioning whether some of the “facts” were actually fiction!

The main story line in the latter parts of the book focuses on radical environmentalism, which for some might be difficult. It worked for me, because I thought that Powers was able to make the story about each character’s search for their own place on the continuum between “complacency and stridency” (in the words of one reviewer) on an important environmental issue. Every character is looking for a genuine and effective response to the issue of global deforestation, or trying to understand the disconnect between modern society and the natural world. In the end, all their paths and understandings seem interconnected (like the roots of trees in the forest!).

Worth the 500 pages.

To request a copy, click here.

Review by Roberta Jordan, Outreach and Instruction Librarian

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