The Overstory by Richard Powers
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Yesterday, I posted the following to Facebook: "Just finished The Overstory by Richard Powers. On first impression I'm thinking it is the greatest and most important American novel since Beloved."
Already, over the weekend as my husband and I were away celebrating our anniversary and I be up early reading the novel on the porch of the B&B, I had said to him, "This may be one of the great American novels."
After posting that, I read some reviews to see what others had to say. Most reviews, of course, were glowing, with a few negative. Nathaniel Rich wrote "He has the courage and intellectual stamina to explore our most complex social questions with originality, nuance, and an innate skepticism about dogma. At a time when literary convention favors novelists who write narrowly about personal experience, Powers’s ambit is refreshingly unfashionable, restoring to the form an authority it has shirked."
Writing for the Kenyon Review, Aatif Rashid said, "But what if character wasn’t the only thing fiction could be about? What if a novel could be about other things instead—the world, science, ideas, the environment? In his 2018 novel The Overstory, which recently won the Pulitzer Prize, Richard Powers demonstrates that a novel doesn’t have to come down to human emotion—and even argues that from a moral point that, given our world’s impending environmental doom, perhaps it shouldn’t."
Here is a big novel of ideas making a moral point. Normally that would sound awful, like reading Bunyan, but in this case it works, in a way that Steinbeck could make it work. And, as the comments above point out, while de-centering the human character. Besides the rare wonderful novel about an animal, like Watership Down, the novel is almost exclusively about human character development, but not here. This novel is about trees and forests. The idea, the moral point, is compelling and persuasive.
All contained within captivating story and told with exquisite prose. Consider this excerpt:
The photos hide everything: the twenties that do not roar for the Hoels. The Depression that cost them 200 acres and sends half the family to Chicago. The radio shows that ruin two of Frank Jr.’s sons for farming. The Hoel death in the South Pacific and the two Hoel guilty survivals. The Deeres and Caterpillars parading through the tractor shed. The barn that burns to the ground one night to the screams of helpless animals. The dozens of joyous weddings, christenings, and graduations. The half-dozen adulteries. The two divorces sad enough to silence songbirds. One son’s unsuccessful campaign for the state legislature. The lawsuit between cousins. The three surprise pregnancies. The protracted Hoel guerrilla war against the local pastor and half the Lutheran parish. The handiwork of heroin and Agent Orange that comes home with nephews from ‘Nam. The hushed up incest, the lingering alcoholism, a daughter’s elopement with the high school English teacher. The cancers (breast, colon, lung), the heart disease, the degloving of a worker’s fist in a grain augur, the car death of a cousin’s child on prom night. The countless tons of chemicals with names like Rage, Roundup, and Firestorm, the patented seeds engineered to produce sterile plants. The fiftieth wedding anniversary in Hawaii and its disastrous aftermath. The dispersal of retirees to Arizona and Texas. The generation of grudge, courage, forbearance, and surprise generosity: everything a human being might call the story happens outside his photo’s frame. Inside the frame, through hundreds of revolving seasons, there is only that solo tree, its fissured bark spiraling upward into early-middle age, growing at the speed of wood.
This is the sort of novel that might just change a reader. On Sunday as my husband and I hiked through a forest in Missouri, I kept telling him tidbits of the novel, for I was seeing the forest in a new way.
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