Sunday, 12 July 2020

The Overstory by Richard Powers

This major novel was the subject for our June book club. It was the Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction in 2019.

The Pulitzer Prize website says:

‘An ingeniously structured narrative that branches and canopies like the trees at the core of the story whose wonder and connectivity echo those of the humans living amongst them.’

This book was a massive undertaking as one of our members said. It is 625 pages long and some readers found the size challenging. In addition it has a large number of characters and time periods.

This novel was also awarded the William Dean Howells Medal in 2020 and nominated for the Man Booker in 2018. This is Richard Power’s 12thnovel. It was published in 2018. It has been critically acclaimed by many major authors including Barbara Kingsolver, writing for The New York Times.

Spoiler alert :


It is the story of 9 main characters living in the United States who all identify with particular trees: chestnut, mulberry, maple, oak (for a married couple), fir, beech and cedar. Each chapter in the ‘Roots’ part of the book includes a small drawing of some leaves and sometimes fruit. (An unusual feature for a novel.) The story of trees in America starts with the first Europeans arriving in the country but the main characters' lives begin in the 1960s till the present day. It is a sad tale of young activism and vandalism trying to save forests and loving trees and their subsequent lives. Some characters stay true to their ideals and one person is killed. The remaining eight find later life very difficult.

The two academics are amongst the strongest characters, they are Adam Appich and Patricia Westerford. He is a psychologist and researcher and she is a scientist. The other two prominent voices are those of an American of Indian ethnicity, Neelay Mehta, who grows up to be a technological wiz with his own company and staff devising fascinating games about ‘natural’ worlds, and an American engineer who is a daughter of a Chinese migrant, Mimi Ma. It is a huge book encompassing very different personalities and different life paths. Some of them cross paths towards the end of the novel.
   

First impressions


  • Wanted to read it as had heard about it. Loved it but it took time to get into. Felt she had a responsibility to read it. 
  • Enjoyed it but found it complex and hard to put it together
  • Well written but grappling with it nevertheless
  • Thought I would love it as I love trees but didn’t finish it 
  • Loved it and wanted to read it as it was on everyone’s list in 2018/19, really liked the way the story was interwoven like the trees with their roots getting interwoven
  • Liked the way trees were characters in the novel
  • Daunted by the size of it but determined to finish it
  • Liked the way the 9 characters set the framework for the novel
  • Enjoyed the ‘Roots’ part of the novel much more than the rest – felt I needed some explanations for it
  • Got engaged but lost the plot and the characters at times, as many of us did, found it a bit contrived also 
  • Is it a polemic or not? Not sure
  • Not a study of human nature but allegorical? 
  • Powers is writing with a purpose and a passion for forests and trees. He has said that this book has changed him forever.
  • Loved the way there were magical parts – like being in a forest – looking at the land from the canopy (walking or sitting up high enough to be part of the forest).
  • Took me on a journey with such joyful and challenging knowledge
  • Need to read it again and again – could be studied in great detail
  • Not a perfect book 
  • Didn’t like any characters except the academic Patricia
  • Reminds me of Tolstoy— depth of knowledge and references to life’s challenges from birth to death and grief and way of living one’s life
  • Does it change your mind about the environment – probably not – talking to the converted

Ensuing discussion


Structure of the work is most unusual – arranged according to the parts of a tree: Roots, Trunk, Crown and Seeds. The largest section is the ‘Trunk’ part.

Characters:


We talked about Neelay, the amazing digital wiz whose life is changed by a tree when he falls from a branch. He taps into a fantasy wonderland of Nature more nuanced and wonderful than reality. He keeps wanting his staff to create more excitement for players of his video game.

We discussed Patty (Patricia) who spends a huge part of her life in the forests and succeeds in setting up a seed bank for the future of mankind. She is deaf and has other issues however she, like the others, are all challenged by the society in which she lives. 

We all applauded Patricia’s success in court as an expert witness. She loves the forests with a passion and great knowledge, and we felt very sorry for her when she was ridiculed for her research conclusions which in time turn out to be correct. Powers is showing that we can make a difference but the odds are stacked against anyone trying. That is the trouble with an existential threat. 

We discussed Nicholas (Nick) and his family’s story of looking after chestnut trees until they all disappear. However, one chestnut tree reappears in someone else’s backyard -- Ray and Dorothy’s little suburban forest. A possible spark of hope? There is a beautiful scene when Ray who is greatly disabled by a stroke and Dorothy realise that they are rekindling their marriage, after many unhappy years, by learning more about nature and allowing nature to overtake their backyard. 

An example of more branching images and interconnections – Dorothy and Ray using the ‘decision tree’ to identify the trees in their yard by their characteristics. (page 552)

We also discussed Olivia Vandergriff who is like a spirit of the forest and slightly wacky. She hears voices and takes Nick on a road trip according to her voices. Some people felt that after her experiences and accidentally (?) dying for a second time, the book didn’t progress. However, others felt that Olivia inspired other characters, particularly Mimi, and some others had a reference back to Olivia and her death. She didn’t expect to achieve anything and she didn’t but she tried. 

Each character brings some different aspect of personality and opinions to the story. For instance Mimi’s dad is a sad Chinese man who takes his three daughters fly-fishing in Fish lake which is where Patricia parks on her way to Yellowstone Park. There are these linkages all through the novel. For instance, Powers writes about Mimi: 

‘The oldest girl, named for a Puccini opera heroine, will soon be wanted by the feds for fifty million dollars of arson.
Two thousand miles to the east, a student sculptor …(will) live to walk past the tree again, thirty years later, but only because of swearing to the Puccini heroine that no matter how bad things get, he won’t kill himself.’ (page 165)
Mimi’s dad killed himself so she doesn’t want that to happen to anyone else. We liked the section talking about Mimi’s Dad’s scroll which shows fishing. We also appreciated Winston (Mimi’s dad) saying sorry to the bear near the lake. 

Mimi asks her father what he said to the bear (that was preparing to attack) – he said

'Apologise!… people very stupid… forget everything...where they come from, where they go.. Don’t worry. Human being leaving this world very soon. Then the bear get top bunk to himself again'. (page 47)

Part of the author’s theme of leaving the world to itself to sort out and continue.

We also talked about the scene when the trees are cut down in front of Mimi’s office. This was where she met Douglas and had a moment of enlightenment.

This novel is full of misfits – because they are like us? The reader could draw allusions to Biblical stories such as those of Paul and Moses? 

The author himself moved to live in a forest and felt it changed his life still living in the Great Smoky mountains of Tennessee.

Title: The Overstory


We thought the title was good – it relates to forests and to one of the climactic parts of the book when Olivia and Nick are delicately balanced on the platform high up in the forest’s canopy. One member remembered the story of other people living high in the trees in the Tarkine, Tasmania. It could also be interpreted as having a mythic atmosphere? 

Forests


This book makes people think about forests more – after reading it you don’t feel the same anymore. However we don’t think it will change people’s ideas about climate change if they are not already convinced of it by the science.

There are many sections discussing the landscape of old growth trees. One member discussed Simon Schama’s book on landscape and art. Schama particularly talks about German landscape painting which often shows forests with a range of trees, as well as growth and death. 

Powers, the author, does not talk about the First Nations people of the US in this novel. There is only one small reference to them in one of the protest scenes when the young people are trying hard to save a forest.

In discussing the forests we talked about oaks and their beauty. One member also talked about forest bathing in Japan where you can be at one with Mother Nature. 

Powers is quoted as saying that ‘all good stories will kill you a little’. Books can do this. 

Conclusion


Is this book saying ‘we are stuffed’ as far as saving the trees and thus the planet? There are different opinions on this matter. But we think Powers is saying that personal connections with nature, especially trees, are vitally important and will help save us ? Life will continue despite everything.

Many of us are troubled, even discombobulated, by the news every day so Patricia’s seed bank leads to hope. There are seed banks in place in Australia as well as overseas, which do hold good for some species of flora. 

This month we were very happy to return to meeting in a member’s home, suitably socially distanced.

Present: 10 members

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