The Overstory: A Brief Book Review

I just finished reading The Overstory by Richard Powers. Let me tell you about it. Let me tell you how it helped.

I’d been reading a lot of non-fiction for a larger writing project; bell hooks on teaching and community building; Gloria Ansaldúa’s Borderlands; Martin Luther King’s Where Do We Go from Here?; Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider. You get the drift. I was plowing through books—great books—learning and growing.

But when COVID-19 arrived on the scene, sending my college students home and shutting down my state, I got distracted. I couldn’t focus. All I could do watch the news and worry—about my family, about our college, about the men I have come to know at our local prison.  I tried to keep reading, but I couldn’t keep my mind on the page. I decided I needed to lose myself in fiction.

The Overstory is a big book—500 pages big. And sometimes I struggle to make it through big books. But this one captured me right away. While perusing many great options, I decided to read this book because it had won a Pulitzer and because I it was about trees. I love trees.

The story follows a handful of people whose lives intersect as each gets involved in saving trees (and the planet) from destructive human greed and overconsumption. The way Richard Powers introduces each character and then follows them through their story reminded me of the structure of one of my all-time favorite books, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. The trees themselves are characters in The Overstory; planted on a newly settled farm in Iowa, a chestnut tree’s growth is recorded with a monthly photograph by generations of family farmers; Mimas, a giant redwood, serves as a host to activists who climb and take shifts living in its branches for months to save it from loggers. The trees, we learn in The Overstory, communicate with each other and with us. They care for and protect and continue in the face of threats. But humans are the trees greatest threat—and, as the story goes, the greatest threat to ourselves as well.

Reading this book in the midst of a global pandemic turned me towards the world, especially the natural world, with fresh eyes. When toilet paper and Clorox bleach and my kids favorite fizzy juice drinks can’t be found in the stores, I’m learning to make do with less and appreciating what I have more. I’ve been taking long walks and spending time in my own backyard. Our trees are beautiful. I’m learning their names: birch, pear, silver maple. I’m regaining my focus—not so much on what threatens us, but on what can save us. The answers to our problems are all around us. I hear them especially at night when I walk outside and listen to the prairie wind stir the crowns of the trees.