|Published||2018 (W. W. Norton & Company)|
The Overstory is a novel by Richard Powers published in 2018 by W.W. Norton. It is Powers's twelfth novel. The novel is about nine Americans whose unique life experiences with trees bring them together to address the destruction of forests. Powers was inspired to write the work while teaching at Stanford University after he encountered giant redwood trees for the first time. The Overstory was shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize on September 20, 2018.
(Note: The plot is incredibly complicated with intricate backstories for each character. To truly understand the book, this backstory-less summary is insufficient.)
Nicholas Hoel, Mimi Ma, Adam Appich, Ray Brinkman, Dorothy Cazaly, Douglas Pavlicek, Neelay Mehta, Patricia Westerford, and Olivia Vandergriff are people who had unique relationships with trees which occasionally led to tragedy or salvation.
Patricia Westerford recognizes that trees are social organisms rather than isolated ones and presents research to prove this, however, she is ridiculed for being "unscientific." Later, scientists will realize that she was right and give her international recognition, but she has been disillusioned from this world and prefers to study old forest growth on her own instead. To share her research, she publishes a widely successful book about trees.
Neelay Mehta loves coding and embraces how insignificant he is. However, while working on a surprise coding project for his father during class, his teacher takes his project notes away from him. He desperately wants his notes back and accidentally curses the teacher, which prompts his teacher to threaten him. Scared of the consequences of insulting a white woman as an Indian child, he climbs a tree to escape reality briefly, but falls out and paralyzes himself. After paralysis, he is able to spend all day programming and initially develops open source games in a world of for-profit video games, like Robin Hood. Eventually, he becomes so successful he starts a video game company too.
Adam Appich is a curious psychology student with an unfortunate childhood. On the last day of his psychology seminar, his professor begins having a seizure. Thinking he is demonstrating the bystander effect, no one rises to help him, and the professor dies.
In 1989, when Olivia Vandergriff is one semester away from finishing college, she gets high and is accidentally electrocuted, briefly dying. Upon being revived, she comes to believe that higher powers are trying to give her a message. After seeing a news story about a group of activists trying to protect the remaining 3% of giant redwood trees, she decides that her purpose is to join them. On her way there, she meets Nicholas Hoel, now 35 years old, and at a loss of what to do with his life as the life insurance money he lived on is gone. He has sold the Hoel farm, the Hoel tree is dying, and his art is a commercial failure. After talking to Olivia, he decides to join her in her mission.
At the same time, in Portland, Oregon, Mimi Ma, the daughter of a Chinese engineer who dies by suicide, is rising up the corporate ladder when she sees that a small group of trees by her building are scheduled to be destroyed by the city. She contemplates attending a town hall meeting to protest their removal but before she can, the city cuts down the trees in the night. Douglas Pavlicek, a veteran who has spent 5 years of his life replanting trees for major companies only to become disillusioned when he discovers that his work actually enables additional logging of old-growth stands, walks by the trees and sees them being cut down. He tries to prevent their destruction and is arrested. When he returns to the trees he is confronted by Mimi Ma, who quickly realizes he is not a city employee but an environmentalist. The two band together to start joining in protests against environmental destruction.
Nick and Olivia join a group of nonviolent radicals and give themselves "tree" names, Nick becoming Watchman and Olivia being Maidenhair. When they are asked to tree sit in a giant redwood called Mimas for two weeks, Olivia leaps at the chance. Their stay ends up lasting for more than a year, during which they watch as the forest around them is clear-cut. They are eventually joined by Adam Appich, who is doing a thesis on environmentalists. The night he is there Nick and Olivia are finally forced out of the tree and arrested so Mimas can be cut down. Nick and Olivia decide to do more work in Oregon.
Mimi Ma and Douglas continue going to protests where they are brutalized by the police and arrested. Mimi is eventually fired from her job and, like Douglas, becomes a full-time activist.
Changed by his time with Olivia and Nick, Adam goes to Oregon to rejoin them, and meets Mimi Ma, now going by the name Mulberry, and Douglas, going by Doug-fir, who are part of the same activist camp. He stays with them a month and they believe that they are finally achieving something until their camp is destroyed by the forest authorities and law enforcement. In the altercation Mimi and Douglas are both badly injured. In retaliation the group sets fire to logging equipment. Pleased by the results, they set two more fires intending the third to be their final act. During the final arson Olivia is injured and dies, and the four remaining activists burn her body and scatter. The fire is deemed the work of a crazed killer and the logging continues.
Mimi Ma sells a priceless heirloom her father passed down, which ensures that she can reinvent herself. Nick becomes a vagrant, Douglas a BLM ranger, and Adam returns to academia.
Patricia Westerford is developing a seed bank to preserve tree species before they become extinct. However, she becomes hopeless as she realizes that no one will take conservation seriously enough. Even though many are turning to technology to protect the environment, she believes the most effective conservation technology has already been invented: trees.
Neelay Mehta becomes the head of a successful video game company, but he would rather explore the world in his own video games and create new worlds than run it. Soon, he comes up with the idea to make his video game emulate the real natural world, a simulation that contains every species in existence and limited resources. However, his board calls this idea crazy and he is voted off. He wishes to hear the dendrologist, Patricia Westerford, speak to recenter his life.
Dorothy and Ray are united by their love for adventure and get married. Ray is a successful lawyer, however, Dorothy begins getting bored in married life, especially since she cannot have children, which Ray wants. She has an extramarital affair and Ray becomes paralyzed from stroke. However, as she helps him recover, she ends her affair and rejuvenate her connection with Ray, even though he cannot speak. They realize that trees are treated as property, with no one to fight for them in court, but they are living too. To them, humans are simply pesky, short-lived bugs. In the end, they have children together, trees.
Douglas is still haunted by what happened and writes down everything in his journal using everyone's forest names. Nevertheless, his journal is discovered and the FBI arrests him. In order to protect Mimi Ma he decides to give up one name and goes to New York City where he locates Adam and reminisces with him about the fire. Fingered by Douglas, Adam is arrested and sentenced to 140 years in prison, which strikes him as a small price to pay as it is barely any time in tree life.
Mimi Ma, who is now living and working as an unconventional unlicensed therapist of sorts, hears about the arrests and realizes that Douglas turned in Adam to protect her.
Westerford, now an acclaimed scientist, is invited to a environmental technology conference to speak. She is about to commit suicide for the trees in front of an audience that doesn't do anything to stop her, until Neelay waves his hands to stop her. She finishes her speech by toasting, "To unsuicide!"
Living in the forest, Nick creates a giant message from branches and dead logs that can be read from space. He is helped in this project by a Native American man who happens to be passing by, and later by some of the man's family. The message, which reads "Still," will be legible from space for 200 years before it is absorbed into the forest.
- Nicholas Hoel – an artist of Norwegian and Irish descent who comes from a long line of farmers and whose great-great-great grandfather planted a chestnut tree that survived blight for decades and enthralled the Hoel family for generations.
- Mimi Ma – the eldest daughter of Winston Ma, born Ma Sih Hsuin, who fled China and became an engineer in America. Mimi falls in love with the Mulberry bush he plants in their backyard and is deeply affected when her father eventually commits suicide.
- Adam Appich – an inquisitive boy who is fascinated with insects and later becomes interested in human psychology and how humans can only understand things that are put into narratives. His father planted a tree before the birth of Adam and each of his four siblings; as a child, Adam conflated the characteristics of each tree with his siblings.
- Ray Brinkman – a conventional property lawyer and Dorothy's husband who later in life falls in love with nature.
- Dorothy Cazaly – an unconventional stenographer who falls in love with nature late in life.
- Douglas Pavlicek – an orphan who enlists in the Stanford prison experiment before enlisting in the Air Force. He falls from his plane and is saved by a banyan tree. After being discharged he wanders across America, realizing as he does so that deforestation is ruining the country. He signs up to plant seedlings, only learning after the planting of his fifty thousandth seedling that this effort does nothing to help the trees and only contributes to their destruction at the hands of logging companies.
- Neelay Mehta – the child of Indian immigrants, Neelay spends his life building computers and creating computer programs in Northern California. Despite being paralyzed when he falls out of a tree as a child, he goes on to become a computer programming marvel, eventually creating a series of video games called Mastery inspired by trees, deforestation, and colonization.
- Patricia Westerford – a dendrologist with a hearing disability, Patricia spends most of her childhood and adulthood enthralled with trees. When she accidentally discovers that trees are capable of communicating with each other, her research is widely mocked leading her to contemplate suicide. She eventually finds work as a park ranger where, years later, she discovers that her work has been redeemed and expanded upon.
- Olivia Vandergriff – a young woman in her early 20s who lives an impulsive and reckless life until dedicating her life to protesting deforestation.
The Atlantic called the novel "darkly optimistic" for taking the long view that humanity was doomed while trees are not. The Guardian was mixed on the novel, with one review claiming that Powers mostly succeeded in conjuring "narrative momentum out of thin air, again and again"; another reviewer excoriated the novel as being an "increasingly absurd melodrama." Library Journal called the book "a deep meditation on the irreparable psychic damage that manifests in our unmitigated separation from nature". Ron Charles of The Washington Post offered up effusive praise, writing that this "ambitious novel soars up through the canopy of American literature and remakes the landscape of environmental fiction."
- 2018 Man Booker Prize shortlist
- 2018 Grand Prix de Littérature Américaine winner
- 2019 2019 PEN/Jean Stein Book Award finalist
- 2019 2019 PEN/Faulkner Award finalist
- 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
- 2020 William Dean Howells Medal
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