Summary and book reviews of The Overstory by Richard Powers

The Overstory

A Novel

by Richard Powers

The Overstory by Richard Powers X
The Overstory by Richard Powers
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2018, 512 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2019, 512 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte
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About this Book

Book Summary

"The best novel ever written about trees, and really just one of the best novels, period." —Ann Patchett

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize
New York Times Bestseller
A New York Times Notable Book and a Washington Post, Time, Oprah Magazine, Newsweek, Chicago Tribune, and Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2018


The Overstory is a sweeping, impassioned work of activism and resistance that is also a stunning evocation of—and paean to—the natural world. From the roots to the crown and back to the seeds, Richard Powers's twelfth novel unfolds in concentric rings of interlocking fables that range from antebellum New York to the late twentieth-century Timber Wars of the Pacific Northwest and beyond. There is a world alongside ours—vast, slow, interconnected, resourceful, magnificently inventive, and almost invisible to us.

This is the story of a handful of people who learn how to see that world and who are drawn up into its unfolding catastrophe.

Excerpt
The Overstory

First there was nothing. Then there was everything.

Then, in a park above a western city after dusk, the air is raining messages. A woman sits on the ground, leaning against a pine. Its bark presses hard against her back, as hard as life. Its needles scent the air and a force hums in the heart of the wood. Her ears tune down to the lowest frequencies. The tree is saying things, in words before words.

It says: Sun and water are questions endlessly worth answering.

It says: A good answer must be reinvented many times, from scratch.

It says: Every piece of earth needs a new way to grip it. There are more ways to branch than any cedar pencil will ever find. A thing can travel everywhere, just by holding still.

The woman does exactly that. Signals rain down around her like seeds.

Talk runs far afield tonight. The bends in the alders speak of long-ago disasters. Spikes of pale chinquapin flowers shake down their pollen; soon they will turn into spiny fruits. ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Why do you think Powers leads with the story of the chestnut trees?
  2. How has your attitude toward the environment changed in the last 10 years? How about the last 20 years or longer? Has The Overstory changed your perspective?
  3. Have you been an activist? If so for what causes? What triggered your involvement?
  4. Which of the characters do you most relate to and why? Which do you find hardest to understand?
  5. Many of the main characters are associated with a specific tree. Which tree would you pick to represent you? Why?
  6. Doug, Mimi, Adam, Nick and Olivia are all tied together in a plotline revolving around ecoterrorism. How do you think the Brinkman's, Patricia Westerford's and Neelay Mehta's stories tie in with theirs? How are ...
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

Here are some of the comments posted about The Overstory.
You can see the full discussion here.


"The best arguments in the world won't change a person's mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story." Do you agree?
Having retired from a healthcare background, we repeatedly had to "show the data". Most intelligent, non-self centered people do seem to respond to data. I have found though, that most often, self-centered people simply wont change their mind, ... - BuffaloGirl

Are there any quotes in the book that resonated with you?
Over the years, I have kept a small three ring binder filled with quotes from the various books I have read. I have the following from THE OVERSTORY: Dennis tells Patricia that the loggers say"Lets go let a little light in that swamp." Forests ... - MarieA

Are you comfortable with quiet, or do you feel the need to fill the void?
Very comfortable with the quiet. I think most readers are, but I also don't think that most humans, or at least Americans, realize what real quiet is. We are so used to the hum of appliances, traffic on nearby roads or streets, jets flying overhead... - BuffaloGirl

Did Mimi Ma Make the right decision to sell the family heirloom?
To be honest, I wasn't sure when reading the book, if Mimi did sell the family heirloom. I think either way she decided, it would have been a correct decision. - BuffaloGirl

Did you know that so many early cultures valued trees? Why do you think that was? And why is it no longer true, for the most part?
Most early cultures lived in and as a part of nature rather than separate from it as most of the world's population does now. Rather than living cooperatively, we now believe that we have to dominate every aspect of nature and use it not only for ... - BuffaloGirl

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  • award image

    Pulitzer Prize for Letters, Drama and Music
    2019

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Many glowing adjectives can be used to describe a novel by Richard Powers: brilliant, moving, mesmerizing. But one word succinctly captures the feeling I come away with every time I put a novel of his down: awe. Of course, given that I look forward to a new Powers novel just as eagerly as my daughter waited for the next in the Harry Potters series, I will be the first one to admit I come to the table already biased. But Powers meets my ridiculously high expectations every single time. He does it again with The Overstory, a sprawling, messy, breathtaking and yes...awe-inspiring tome about trees...continued

Full Review (616 words).

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(Reviewed by Poornima Apte).

Media Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
Starred Review. A masterpiece of operatic proportions.... A magnificent achievement.

Booklist
Starred Review. A magnificent saga....Powers's 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....profound and symphonic.

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. A deep meditation on the irreparable psychic damage that manifests in our unmitigated separation from nature.

Author Blurb Bill McKibben
This book is beyond special. Richard Powers manages to turn trees into vivid and engaging characters, something that indigenous people have done for eons but that modern literature has rarely if ever even attempted. It's not just a completely absorbing, even overwhelming book; it's a kind of breakthrough in the ways we think about and understand the world around us, at a moment when that is desperately needed

Author Blurb Thomas McGuane
The Overstory is a visionary, accessible legend for the planet that owns us, its exaltation and its peril, a remarkable achievement by a great writer.

Reader Reviews

HalJordan

Life changing
I've never read a book that compelled me to come onto the internet and find out what other people thought about it, and to ask questions to better understand its meaning. I won't write a review here of the plot - its well cataloged in many places. ...   Read More

J

Remorse
Reading this book brought a revelation. It also made me very sad that it was not available to read 70 years ago. I grew up in logging country and lived in Humboldt County during the 70s, 80s and 90s when all the timber wars took place. If I had ...   Read More

Tom Matamoros

Way Better Than Very Good
Overstory is an exceptional book. Richard Powers deserves to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. He is the smartest and most accomplished American novelist. I recommend all readers of literary fiction read Overstory. I guarantee you will not be ...   Read More

Robert Walz

Moral response
This book is challenging to read. I had to re-read so I could fully appreciate the stories of each the main characters. The book also challenges with many underlying issues, issues that go to the survival of these trees and to our own survival. It is...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

India's Chipko Andolan

Chipko MovementIn The Overstory, a few of the characters become environmental activists in order to save the wealth of forests in the American West and Pacific Northwest. In the novel, Richard Powers refers to many save-the-trees efforts around the globe, including the Chipko Andolan in the 1970s in the Himalayan region of India.

Chipko Andolan literally translates to Stick (as in cling) Protest, as the mostly women who took part in the struggle against logging companies stood their ground by wrapping their arms around the trees that were scheduled to be felled.

The Chipko Andolan was born in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh (the region of the Himalayas where it originated is now part of a new state, Uttarakhand). India and China went to ...

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