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The Overstory: An Epic Tale of Our Relationship with Trees

Updated: Oct 30, 2022

The Pulitzer-Prize Winning novel by Richard Powers

Looking up into a green tree

My dad planted a small blue spruce fir tree in our yard when we moved into the house in 1963. After a few years, my older sister, Melanie, could take a running leap and clear that tree which was about three feet tall. All these years later, the massive tree stands more than fifty feet high and has a trunk almost two feet in circumference. 

Daddy also planted a pair of holly trees at the same time, one male and one female. (Yes, trees have sexes depending on which one can produce berries.)  The female tree in the corner of our backyard grew so humongous that Daddy felt compelled to cut it into three topiary balls, making it look like a prickly, red and green snowman. A giant white birch tree reaches into the sky of our front yard, and a big black locust provided shade for the back deck of my childhood home.

One of my favorite poems is Walt Whitman's "I Saw In Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing," where the tree "utters joyous leaves of dark green." The apple-throwing trees in Wizard of Oz terrified and angered me as a child. The Ents, the ancient trees in The Lord of the Rings, fascinated me.

I felt it. I understand it. I have the connection to trees that Richard Powers' Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, The Overstory, explores. If you've ever walked through a forest, breathed in the smell of pine, or appreciated the intense colors of trees, you'll probably feel the connection, too.

The Planting of Roots and Plot

Richard Powers skillfully sets up the intertwining and rooting of characters in our minds in each of the opening eight chapters. Reading like beautifully-crafted short stories, each chapter introduces us to a character or characters and their diverse histories. A farm family in Iowa, a couple of amateur actors, a discredited botanist, and a woman who survived a harrowing near-death experience are just a few of the people whose lives will intersect and be forever affected by each other and their relationships with trees.

When I started reading this, I wondered how in the world Richard Powers could pull these different characters together. In the second section of the book, titled, "Trunk," I was in awe of the skillful plotting that intertwined and rooted them together.

Environmental or Eco-Fiction

Richard Powers' novel won the Pulitzer in 2019, an award given to

"distinguished fiction published in book form during the year by an American author, preferably dealing with American life.”

The Overstory is a prime example of environmental or eco-fiction, a genre that examines the relationship between humanity and the environment. Rebecca Renner for BookRiot, explains it this way:

"Environmental fiction, sometimes called eco-fiction is populated, certainly, by characters who interact with the environment. But that’s not enough. To be environmental fiction, a story needs to explicitly assess humanity’s impact on nature.
Instead of talking about the future of our environment in vast what-ifs, it gives texture to those new realities and a face to the people who fight to survive them."

Powers' book definitely does that.

The trees are connected to the welfare of the world, as are the people who fight to save the forests or to timber them. The fate of all humanity is intertwined with the fate of all the trees.

The Overstory is an Uber Story

The title "The Overstory" makes more sense after reading the novel. The understory is mentioned frequently because it is the forestry term for the layer of vegetation that lays on the forest floor far beneath the trees. "The Overstory" is the term Powers uses only in the title. It is the exact opposite of the forest floor. It is the over-arching umbrella that covers both the forces of humanity and the natural cycles of the earth. It's the all-encompassing, omniscient viewpoint of what is happening - the complete and total "over story."

The term "uber" (not the car-service,) is applied to an outstanding or superlative example of something. The Overstory is my idea of an "uber story." Richard Powers has combined interesting, believable characters with scientific facts, snippets of poetry, cultural beliefs, and environmental issues.

It is not dry and boring like old firewood. It is fresh and verdant, laden with emotion.

If you're a tree-hugger or a tree-hater, The Overstory has something for you.

My favorite review from Barbara Kingsolver in The New York Times says it all:

"Monumental...The Overstory accomplishes what few living writers from either camp - art or science, could attempt. Using the tools of the story, he pulls readers heart-firest into a perspective so much longer-lived and more subtly developed than the human purview that we can gain glimpses of a vast, primordial sensibility, while watching our own kind get whittled down to size . . . A gigantic fable of genuine truths."

Richard Powers

Born in Evanston, Illinois, Powers went on to study physics, but frustrated by the level of specialization it required, he switched to literature and rhetoric after an instructor convinced him that "literature was the perfect place for someone who wanted the aerial view."

Powers moved to Boston, worked as a freelance data processor and computer programmer, and began to write, the perfect example of the kind of genius that comes from not separating science from art, but merging the two fields.

Eventually, Powers got a chair at Stanford where he was inspired by the redwoods and got the idea for The Overstory.

I'm so glad he did. Read this unforgettable book, and you'll never think the same way about a tree again.

A path through a dense forest


If you love books, you'll want to read more about both classic and contemporary "reads" in Book Talk.

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