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Titles similar to The Overstory
Nick, an artist, grew up on a family farm in Iowa famous for its regal chestnut tree. Patricia, born in Ohio with speech and hearing problems, finds inspiration in the plant world, studies forestry, and makes a controversial discovery. Adam, a science-struck boy enamored of ants, ends up majoring in social psychology and focusing on people “risking their lives for plants.” Douglas’ life is saved by a tree when his plane is shot down during the Vietnam War; he later joins a tree-planter squad, attempting to compensate for the ravages of clear-cut logging. Engineer Mimi’s father, a Chinese immigrant who invented the earliest prototype for the cell phone, planted a mulberry tree in their backyard in Illinois. Neelay, another child of a brilliant immigrant parent, a pioneering computer designer in San Jose, takes to coding as a boy like a leaf to sunlight, and even though he loses the use of his legs after falling out an oak, trees inspire the nature-based virtual realms he creates, which make him a video-game game “god.”
All of these magnetic characters, and others, are introduced separately in “Roots”; they then converge in “Trunk,” “Crown,” and “Seeds,” each a section in MacArthur Fellow and National Book Award winner Powers’ twelfth novel, a magnificent saga of lives aligned with the marvels of trees, the intricacy and bounty of forests, and their catastrophic destruction under the onslaught of humanity’s ever-increasing population on our rapidly warming planet. A virtuoso at parallel narratives, concurrent micro and macro perspectives, and the meshing of feelings, facts, and ideas, Powers draws on his signature fascination with the consequences, intended and otherwise, of science and technology as he considers the paradox of our ongoing assaults against nature in spite of all the evidence indicating impending disasters. The gripping, many-branched drama that unfolds here is a grand inquiry into how our hubris and unrelenting consumption and decimation of natural resources drives environmental activists to enact extreme and dangerous forms of civil disobedience.
Olivia, a college student in Boston is oblivious to trees until a freak accident leaves her receptive to strange “beings of light” who, as the year 1990 begins, induce her to pack up her car and start driving west. Olivia has no idea why she’s on this mysterious journey until she sees television coverage of people forming a ring around an enormous tree in Solace, California. The “presences” tell her: “The most wondrous products of four billion years of life need help.” Olivia finds her way to Nick in Iowa, and when they reach California, the lovers, like the real-life tree-sitter Julia Butterfly Hill, ascend 200 feet off the ground to live for months on precarious platforms erected on an ancient, majestic redwood under siege by loggers.
Another bond is forged when Douglas and Mimi’s paths cross at an endangered grove of trees outside her high-rise Portland, Oregon, office. Adam’s tree-hugger research also puts him on the scene as they all arrive at the same place. And once each either witnesses or is subjected to vicious attacks by enraged loggers and contemptuous law-enforcement agents, they join forces and embark on acts of what they define as ecotage (vandalizing equipment to sabotage logging operations) and which logging corporations and the authorities deem ecoterrorism. Meanwhile, Patricia writes Rachel Carson–style books about the complex interconnectedness and intelligence of forests that galvanize the world. But can anyone stop or even slow the devastation wrought by the relentless tide of human growth and need?
Powers’ sylvan tour de force is alive with gorgeous descriptions; continually surprising, often heartbreaking characters; complex suspense; unflinching scrutiny of pain; celebration of creativity and connection; and informed and expressive awe over the planet’s life force and its countless and miraculous manifestations. Powers elevates ecofiction with this profound and symphonic novel even as he pays subtle tribute to the genre’s defining title, Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975), which, in turn, inspired T. C. Boyle’s ecowarrior tale, A Friend of the Earth (2000). The Overstory takes a crowning position on a list of earlier novels about trees and tree-huggers and about the terrible consequences of ecotage or ecoterrorism as well-meaning convictions precipitate calamities and crises of conscience. Diverse in voice and timbre, the list includes The Living, by Annie Dillard (1992); The Tree-Sitter, by Suzanne Matson (2006); The Cookbook Collector, by Allegra Goodman (2010); The Widower’s Tale, by Julia Glass (2010); Barkskins, by Annie Proulx (2016); and At the Edge of the Orchard, by Tracy Chevalier (2016).
Powers wants us to see trees and forests in verdant and exhilarating detail, and feel the despair of those who know the magnitude and significance of all that is being irrevocably lost as forests everywhere are destroyed. As we rip apart the forest’sgreen web, we immerse ourselves in the cyberweb. Powers wonders, Will data guide us in reversing our doomsday folly? Will stories help us fully perceive, cherish, and preserve life? The Overstory and its brethren seed awareness and hope.
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