Recommendations Staff Book Reviews

The Overstory by Richard Powers

by Adult Services Librarian Jeff

The Overstory by Richard Powers is a lot of things, possibly too many, at once. But perhaps its most impressive achievement is how it decenters the human experience while simultaneously unfurling a compelling, complex, and ultimately human storyline via its nine main characters. Being a work of environmental fiction, and in particular being tree-centric, it’s not farfetched to expect a fairly breezy, peaceful read with the end result of appreciating nature a bit more. In reality, The Overstory is fraught with traumatic events and incisive critiques of our relationship with nature.

The Overstory is split into four sections: Roots, Trunk, Crown, and Seeds. In Roots, each of the main characters are introduced via a short story-esque passage that ultimately reveals the role trees play (or have played) in their lives. These range all the way from a dendrologist (someone who studies trees/wooded plants) to a young couple who, for much of their lives, don’t pay any attention to trees. In the book’s second section, Trunk, the narrative hops between storylines and the characters’ stories intertwine in various interesting ways, primarily by means of environmental activism. In Crown and Seeds, the fallout from the narrative climax unravels and the story draws to a close.

Tonally, The Overstory is alternately enchanting and disheartening. Passages describing the social nature of trees and how they communicate with one another inspire awe, but this awe is quickly eroded when reading about the sobering environmental devastation of logging, particularly in old-growth areas like the redwood forests in California. This frames one of the central conflicts of the book: environmental activists versus logging companies. And as the book is set in capitalist America, the victor of these confrontations isn’t exactly a surprise.

It’s difficult to overstate just how much is packed into the 500 or so pages of The Overstory. Existential meditations about humanity’s place on Earth, ruminations on the future of artificial intelligence- it is truly much more than a book about trees. Because of this, the book can teeter toward melodrama, and it loses a bit of steam toward the end. It can also be an exceptionally difficult read emotionally, as a human being and as a consumer. However, in a time where the consequences of climate change ominously loom in our everyday lives, the perspective Richard Powers offers is both welcome and utterly paramount.

For fans of Literary Fiction and Environmental Fiction, including Greenwood by Michael Christie and Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver

You can request The Overstory digitally through Overdrive, or request a physical copy or audiobook through the BPL catalog.