20 Books of Summer, Man Booker Longlisted: The Overstory

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Wonderful and excellent. Lyrical and beautiful. Absolutely loved it. 

Initially, I was surprised to not find this being categorized as short stories. We start each chapter with a new and unrelated story, their connections and family history to the trees are the only similarities in their stories.  Each illustrate how we’re so insignificant and trees have been here long before us, and will continue to be here long after we’re gone (long after we’ve destroyed this planet, infected it and stripped it of all it’s beauty and use.) I was loving every single story I was reading. Each one was magnificent, especially the first two or three. And each seemed to end with the death of the human in it, through some tragic or sad end.

Those first stories were amazing. I was loving every moment with this big, beautiful book – this giant love story to trees. I was even loving how each chapter had an illustration of the leaves of the tree that was being used in their story. You know we Hoarders love when this kind of loving attention is paid to books. I didn’t even feel any remorse at reading this on my Kobo. The illustrations were bold and impactful on the e-reader, just as much as I assume they would be in print format.

Once we reach the end of the eight or nine individual stories, the characters fall in together – all from the current generation – to come together in their fierce fight to save the trees. Toward the end it gets a little futuristic for me, I will admit, with talk of “Learners” and data and the future, but overall this was something I didn’t expect to love as much as I did. For me, the first half was the very best and the first two-to-three stories were the most wonderful and awe-inspiring.

Every day I was reading this, I was hyper-aware of the trees. Hyper-aware of their magnificence, their age, about what I was reading of how they communicate to one another….I would pause and look up and simply marvel at the stories Powers was telling us about them. On our own property, we had a previous (original) owner that was an obvious lover of trees, and it shows and has carried on to us. Over our backyard patio we have a magnificent Japanese maple. Many have stopped to say they have never seen a Japanese maple that large or glorious. We’ve even had offers to buy it – how it would be dug up, survive and moved is beyond me but those questions are always met with emphatic absolutely not on your lives! In the front yard, we had a marvelous and really unique Golden Birch. No one had a tree like that one. Sadly, tragically, it died and we had to cut it down. 🙁 I miss that tree tremendously. (Our neighbour does not – this is the person that had every single tree on his property removed so he didn’t have to deal with the clean up of the falling leaves. He has absolutely no trees on his property at all. I feel so sad for him, although he does enjoy our Japanese maple that covers his patio with shade and beauty as well.)

I will be very surprised to not see The Overstory land on the Man Booker Prize Shortlist. While it’s the first and only one on the Longlist I’ve read, I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t win? It’s layered, complex, full of wonder and excellent, excellent, lyrical language:

” She replants their experiment in a spot behind the house where she and her father liked to sit on summer nights and listen to what other people called silence.”

“Eastern Kentucky University turns her into someone else. Patricia blooms like something southern-facing. The air of the sixties crackles as she crosses campus, a change in the weather, the smell of days lengthening, the scent of possibility breaking the cast of outdated thought, a clear wind rolling down from the hills.”

“It’s a miracle, she tells her students, photosynthesis: a feat of chemical engineering underpinning creation’s entire cathedral. All the razzmatazz of life on Earth is a free-rider on that mind-boggling magic act. The secret of life: plants eat light and air and water, and the stored energy goes on to make and do all things.”

“When the lateral roots of two Douglas-first run into each other underground, they fuse. Through those self-grafted knots, the two trees join their singular systems together and become one. Networked together underground by countless thousands of miles of living fungal threads, her trees feed and heal each other, keep their young and sick alive, pool their resources and metabolites into community chests…It will take years for the picture to emerge.”

“She tells how an elm helped start the American Revolution. How a huge five-hundred-year-old mesquite grows in he middle of on of the planet’s most arid deserts. How the glimpse of a horse chestnut through a window gave Anne Frank hope, even in hopeless hiding. How seeds brought to the moon and back sprouted all over the Earth.”

I miss reading about the trees. I miss the splendid story-telling of Richard Powers. I guarantee you’ll not look at a tree in the same way after finishing this epic devotion to them.