The Overstory (2018) by Richard Powers won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction in 2019. Heavily focused on environmentalism, the book was also shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize.
The tree-loving book reminds readers of the eco-friendly generation that sprouted the memorable Silent Spring (1962) by Rachel Carson, or Desert Solitaire (1968) and The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975) by Edward Paul Abbey. Some of the techno-parts involving the computer “thought game” called Mastery can be a distant, but pleasant reminder of Cixin Liu’s The Three–Body Problem (2006).
Ultimately, The Overstory is a love-letter to trees. The reader can feel the love and admiration the author has for trees and all things related to flora. There’s no question that humanity—at this time more than ever—needs a book that pays homage trees, to the planet, to Nature, to the environment, to the living-green things that produce oxygen and help in many uncountable ways to keep humanity alive. The Overstory is without question worthy of the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction.
“Love for trees pours out of her—the grace of them, their supple experimentation, the constant variety and surprise. These slow, deliberate creatures with their elaborate vocabularies, each distinctive, shaping each other, breeding birds, sinking carbon, purifying water, filtering poisons from the ground, stabilizing the microclimate. Join enough living things together, through the air and underground, and you wind up with something that has intention. Forest. A threatened creature” (pgs 354-355).
Characters in The Overstory
There are nine main characters in The Overstory, and their journeys often intersect and intertwine like roots beneath the ground. Each character is also specifically connected to a type of tree.
Nicholas “Nick” Hoel = Chestnut
Mimi Ma = Mulberry
Adam Appich = Maple
Ray Brinkman = Oak
Dorothy Cazaly-Brinkman = Linden
Douglas Pavlicek = Banyan
Neelay Mehta = Queensland bottle tree
Patricia Westerford = Douglas-fir
Olivia “Livia” Vandergriff = Ginkgo biloba (or, Maidenhair tree)
Unique Organization in The Overstory
Roots = pgs 1-4
The Hoel Family (Chestnut tree) = pgs 5-28
The Ma Family (Mulberry tree) = pgs 29-57
The Appich Family (Maple tree) = pgs 58-79
Ray Brinkman & Dorothy Cazaly (Oak & Linden trees) = pgs 80-90
“Ovid tells the story of two immortals who came to Earth in disguise to cleanse the sickened world. No one would let them in but one old couple, Baucis and Philemon. And their reward for opening their door to strangers was to live on after death as trees—an oak and a linden—huge and gracious and intertwined” (p 620).
Douglas Pavlicek (Banyan tree) = pgs 91-113
Neelay Mehta (Queensland bottle tree) = pgs 114-140
Patricia Westerford (Douglass-fir tree) = pgs 141-181
Olivia Vandergriff (Maidenhair tree) = pgs 182-190
Trunk = pgs 191-194
Olivia = pgs 195-206
Ray & Dorothy = pgs 206-210
Olivia (meets Nicholas Hoel) = pgs 210-223
Mimi = pgs 223-229
Douglas = pgs 229-232
Mimi = pgs 232-233
Douglas = pgs 233-237
Mimi = pgs 237-238
Neelay = pgs 238-247
Nick & Olivia = pgs 248-254
Douglas = pgs 254-259
Ray & Dorothy = pgs 259-263
Nick & Olivia = pgs 263-271
Patricia = pgs 271-280
Neelay = pgs 281-288
Olivia as “Maidenhair” & Nick as “Watchman” (“The Animal Resurrection”) = pgs 288-290
Adam = pgs 290-298
Mimi & Douglas = pgs 298-307
Dorothy & Ray = pgs 307-316
Olivia & Nick = pgs 316-319
Patricia = pgs 320-323
Olivia & Nick = pgs 323-337
Mimi & Douglas = pgs 337-344
Neelay = pgs 344-349
Patricia = pgs 349-357
Olivia & Nick = pgs 357-370
Mimi & Douglas = pgs 370-379
Patricia = pgs 379-382
Neelay = pgs 382-387
Ray & Dorothy = pgs 387-390
Mimi = pgs 390-392
Douglas = pgs 392-395
Adam (meets Olivia & Nick) = pgs 395-408
Patricia (with Neelay, Dorothy, Ray, Adam, Nick, Olivia) = pgs 408-412
Adam = pgs 412-415
Adam as “Maple” (with Douglas as “Doug-fir,” Mimi as “Mulberry,” Olivia as “Maidenhair,” & Nick as “Watchman”) = pgs 416-428
Mimi (with Adam, Douglas, Nick, Olivia) = pgs 428-440
*Note: Unlike the preceding character sections (which are clearly marked and separated by a picture of a tree stump), beyond this point there are no marked sections to differentiate between the numerous characters.
Crown = pgs 441-444
Nick (with Adam, Mimi, Douglas, Dorothy, Patricia, Neelay, Ray) = pgs 445-588
Seeds = pgs 589-592
Nick (with Mimi, Douglas, Adam, Neelay, Nick, Ray, Dorothy) = pgs 593-625
Thoughts on The Overstory
The main eight chapters, which introduce the primary nine characters at the beginning of the book, read strikingly like intense well-focused short stories written with immense effort dedicated to detail and character development.
Then, as if the author pitched his book idea (i.e., the collection of eight short stories) to an editor and together they formed a scheme to further develop these eight “short stories” into a full-length novel rather than publishing a collection of short fiction, the quality of the writing in the book (after these first incredibly well-written eight “short stories”) becomes more concerned with the over-all narrative that the writing loses much of its original superbness (found in the first 190 pages).
The brilliance becomes dimmed. The grandeur becomes second-rate. The writing and language, instead, become stretched thin over a far-reaching plot that threads far too many characters into a spiderweb of subplots.
Characters vacate the story for long periods of pages. Sub-plots ebb and flow, losing intensity and tension. Too much distance (often) between characters and plot and action.
Regardless, there are some brilliant lines in The Overstory; spectacular writing that shines remarkably bright when the reader least expects it: “Every hug is a small, soft jail” (p 59); and, “What do all good stories do… They kill you a little. They turn you into something you weren’t” (p 515).
The foremost theme, however, is one of utmost importance: Trees.
The Ape Within
On pages 76 and 78, Richard Powers in The Overstory cites a fictional book called The Ape Inside Us by a Professor R.M. Rabinowski, of the Department of Psychology in Fortuna College (p 77).
Of the fictional book, Powers writes: “As Rabinowski himself says, on page 231: ‘Kindness may look for something in return, but that doesn’t make it any less kind’” (p 78).
Chapter 12, “Influence,” is also mentioned a few times in Powers’s book The Overstory. Powers writes: “His words of thanks contain four of the top six releasers for producing action patterns in someone else: reciprocity, scarcity, validation, and appeal to commitment. He hides the evidence of his begging under another trick gleaned from Chapter 12: If you want a person to help you, convince them that they’ve already helped you beyond saying. People will work hard to protect their legacy” (p 78).
The Ape Inside Us that Powers has created for his readers in The Overstory (2018) is largely, and specifically, based on a real book called The Ape Within Us (1978) by John Ramsay MacKinnon.
In the real book The Ape Within Us (not the fictional The Ape Inside Us), MacKinnon defines and explains the six principles of compliance: Reciprocity; Scarcity; Validation (Social Proof); Appeal to Commitment (or, Commitment & Consistency); Authority; and, Liking.
For more information on these topics concerning “Influence” and the “Principles of Compliance” you can read The Ape Within Us (1978) by John Ramsay MacKinnon, and/or you can read Influence: Science and Practice (1984) by Robert Beno Cialdini, PhD. The book was later revised and is also known as Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (2006).
Robert B. Cialdini (born 1945) was Professor of Psychology at Arizona State University and is Regents’ Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Marketing at Arizona State University and was a visiting professor of marketing, business and psychology at Stanford University, as well as at the University of California at Santa Cruz.
By clicking the link, you can read for free the article “The Science of Influence: Using Six Principles of Persuasion to Negotiate and Mediate More Effectively,” (Fall 2002) published in the Dispute Resolution Magazine, pages 20-22 (Another Link to Article Here). Article Authors: Robert B. Cialdini, Roselle L. Wissler, and Nicholas J. Schweitzer.
The Importance of The Overstory
Richard Powers throws a spotlight onto the importance of trees and how their survival is tied to the survival of the whole human race. He brings Nature humming to the page, and the words leave a haunting effect over the reader as they learn of this sad planetary struggle.
“A distant branch snaps, and the crack shoots through the understory. There are mink nearby, in these same woods, and lynx. Bear, caribou, even wolverines, though they never let people glimpse them. The birds, though, give themselves as gifts. And everywhere there is scat, tracks, the evidence of things unseen. As they work, Nick hears voices. One voice, really. It repeats what it has been saying to him for decades now, ever since the speaker died. He has never known what to do with them, words of everything and nothing. Words that he has never fully grasped” (p 613).
The villain of this story is the entire human race. Trees, far older and wiser than humans, are the heroes. Readers cheer for these green, silent heroes and cry when a single mammoth tree is cut from the heavens and comes crashing down. Richard Powers turns the tables on humanity, making them appear an ugly race of animals who lack an intelligent connection to their surroundings.
“Humans carry around legacy behaviors and biases, jerry-rigged holdovers from earlier stages of evolution that follow their own obsolete rules. What seem like erratic, irrational choices are, in fact, strategies created long ago for solving other kinds of problems. We’re all trapped in the bodies of sly, social-climbing opportunists shaped to survive the savanna by policing each other” (p 76).
Humans are the idiots. Humans are the fleeting species. Trees are the genius. Trees are the lasting species.
“A seed that lands upside down in the ground will wheel—root and stem—in great U-turns until it rights itself. But a human child can know it’s pointed wrong and still consider the direction well worth a try” (p 72).
There is a deeper message humanity needs to learn when it comes to trees. In The Overstory the trees are the patient teachers who instruct by being. If humanity could only learn to listen more closely to the planet and the environment, to Anima Mundi, we might see a better way forward than our current path of destruction, desolation and unsustainability.
“No mates exist for countless miles around, and a chestnut, though both male and female, will not serve itself. Yet still this tree has a secret tucked into the thin, living cylinder beneath its bark. Its cells obey an ancient formula: Keep still. Wait. Something in the lone survivor knows that even the ironclad law of Now can be outlasted. There’s work to do. Starwork, but earthbound all the same. Or as the nurse to the Union dead writes: Stand cool and composed before a million universes. As cool and composed as wood” (p 10).
The interconnectivity between trees and humanity is not lost on the readers who follow the journey of the nine primary characters in The Overstory. And as the multi-decade adventure unfolds, the “overstory” begins to take shape to reveal a frightening revelation that is staring humanity in the face.
“Humankind is deeply ill. The species won’t last long. It was an aberrant experiment. Soon the world will be returned to the healthy intelligences, the collective ones. Colonies and hives” (p 70).
But what can humanity do? What other forms of activism is there to be done? How shall humanity change course when tradition and culture speak to immovable behaviors? Where will true interconnectivity between the natural world and humanity begin? When?
“From on high, it feels as if even the trees spreading across these slopes are at war. Patches of lush green march against patches of muddy vomit, all the way to the horizon. And the people assembled here: ignorant armies going up against each other as they have forever, for reasons hidden from even the most vehement. When will it be enough? Now, if you can believe this chanting, laughing crowd on its way to convince the road crew at the end of these wheel ruts. Now: the second-best of times” (p 302).
The American novelist CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy), a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU, & he’s a member of Club Med & a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) based in London.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father’s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; Little Hometown, America: A Look Back; A Time to Forget in East Berlin; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979.
You can follow the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 400,000+ followers