Review: 'The Overstory' by Richard Powers

Credit: WBUR

Credit: WBUR

"The best arguments in the world won't change a person's mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story."

I was only ten pages in when I began fantasizing about the kinds of words I'd choose to illustrate the lingering pangs of Powers' hypnotizing prose. 

Dreading its end, I found myself constricting my own reading time to 20 or so pages in one sitting.

"This. What we have been given. What we must earn. This will never end."

"It's a book about trees, but like, a lot more than that," I'd tell friends, shaming myself as the words slipped off my tongue. I know, I know. What's more than trees?

I'm no climate crusader, and that's an understatement. In fact, when we first moved from the concrete jungle of New York City to Georgia, I relentlessly complained about the majestic, towering oaks overwhelming the state, the only grievance I could muster up after leaving behind the multicultural home I'd grown to love for the South and its cunningly charming facade, as it's often viewed from up above.

And I didn't grow up in a home of sustainability ethics, either. One part of me still believes it's a luxury to be able to prioritize the Earth before your own kin, your own now. Today, I'm at war with myself, aghast by an ignorance I was too ignorant to embrace.

"People see better what looks like them,” Patricia Westerford, one of nine characters at the center of this epic, says. True. So, she shows us trees as human as ever. She tells us how trees, too, talk to each other. They trade, they have sex, experience pain, remember. They're highly aware, intelligent. Like the apex species humans believe they are, but aren't.

The nine cast members — not to be mistaken with the true heroes of the novel: trees — are each introduced with equally compelling storylines:  A Vietnam War Air Force vet turned eco-activist after a banyan tree saves his life; an impulsive college student who electrocutes herself and comes back to life with a renewed vision; an Indian immigrant scientist confined to his wheelchair inspired by the death of one world to become the master of another digital sphere; an Irish-Norwegian artist from a long line of farmers who inherits spellbinding photographic portraits of a beloved chestnut tree and a Chinese engineer, daughter of immigrants, who falls in love with her father's Mulberry bush, loses it to homicide and, then, loses her father to suicide. Then there's the couple who seemed lost, stuck and hopeless until they found their forest, and the forest found them. A psychologist who studies how humans only understand things that speak to them. And lastly, the tree-lover academic from birth, who tries, fails and tries again to convince us all to open our ears to the green gods around us, aching the way a grandmother yearns for her distant grandchild: "Listen. There's something you need to hear."

“Buddha’s words: A tree is a wondrous thing that shelters, feeds, and protects all living things. It even offers shade to the axmen who destroy it.”

Five stars.

Take a look around, when you get a minute to spare. Inhale the exhales of Georgia's buckeyes, magnolias, its presidential oaks and, my personal favorite, the underrated, dependable trident maple that's withstood more pain than most.

Other reviews:
They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib
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The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Unapologetically yours,
Fiza