Sunday, December 6, 2020

Richard Powers, The Overstory


I remember reading an interview with Barbara Kingsolver several years ago in which she explained why she had moved from writing about science and world politics to writing fiction. She had realized she could interest people in topics she cared about through fiction who would never think to pick up a nonfiction book on the topic.

Richard Powers' 2019 Pulitzer Prize-wining novel The Overstory certainly has the potential of touching readers and teaching them, all the while weaving several narrative threads into one of the most unforgettable books I have read. Long before I had finished the book, I was recommending it to other serious readers.

I had been noting mention of the book by other readers and writers. I wasn't far into the story before I knew why. Powers begins what seem to be several unrelated short stories; the only common factor was trees. (I thought at first of Tom Hanks' short story collection Uncommon Type, which has a manual typewriter in every story.) Gradually, Powers' characters cross paths.

Douglas, as a young man, agrees to participate in an academic experiment, putting him in prison for a set period of time, much more challenging than he could have anticipated. In Vietnam, his life is saved by a banyan tree. Later, he meets Mimi Ma, the daughter of a Chinese immigrant who committed suicide when she was a girl, when he tries to stop a municipal tree-cutting carried out under the cover of night before protestors have a chance to appeal the decision.

Ray and Dorothy begin their courtship by trying out for roles in a community theatre production of Macbeth (the only trees in their first story were the moving Birnam Wood come to Dunsinane). Their sometimes contentious marriage ends with their strongest connection the trees outside their home after he suffers an aneurysm.

Neelay, from a Indian family, becomes a paraplegic as a boy but builds an empire of virtual reality gaming.

One of the most sympathetic characters is Patricia Westerford, whose hearing impairment affected her speech but certainly not her intelligence. She makes an early discovery of communications among trees, which she publishes to much scorn that drives her for awhile out of the academic world. While she is working in anonymity in forestry, her work is rediscovered and given new credence.

 Olivia, a college girl, meets Neil, an aspiring artists, who buries what remains of his family treasures and goes with her, joining a group of protestors trying to stop the cutting of the giant redwoods. The nine or so main storylines gradually come together. 

Powers moves readers along through his rousing, character-driven story, along the way teaching us more about botany and the inter-related life systems of our world than any biology class. The book he has crafted subtly pulls together science and great storytelling. 


No comments: