The Understory, by Richard Powers. Book report #13 (2022)

The Overstory, by Richard Powers. Pub 2018

This book was a slog and a half. I started it in the first week of January and have whittled away at it over the past 3 months, finally closing it this past weekend. It is long but felt oh-so-much longer with its complex and convoluted characters and story lines. With nine (actually, 10) main characters, each of whom gets full attention in bursts and most (but not all) of whom come together in unbelievable ways, the stories move along at the pace of trees growing – slowly.

As briefly as possible, several individuals across the US grow up contemporaneously but separately, and each has a strong connection or association in their life with trees, usually one specific tree or type of tree. There’s Nicholas Hoel, whose family farm in Iowa is slowly being eaten up by factory farming all around it. The Hoel farm is home to a large chestnut tree, one of a few imported with his ancestors from the East coast. We also have Mimi Ma, whose Muslim father immigrated from Shanghai and planted mulberry trees in the family yard as homage to his lost Asian heritage. In the “Roots” section of the book, we are slowly introduced to each of the main characters; many have a specific tree associated with them, but a few do not. In the following sections (“Trunk”, “Crown”, and “Seeds”), the stories advance, and several intertwine, with the main trunk being the accidental congregation of five characters as anti-logging protestors in Northern California. In the end and across the various storylines, there is accident, tragedy, death, and a sense of futility for mankind. No matter what we do, the trees will be here long after we’re gone.

The overall premise seems to be to reflect the complex connected lives of trees – as described in non-fiction books such as Finding the Mother Tree by Suzanne Simard and The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben (both of whom seem to have been inspirations for this story and one of the characters, or perhaps several of them). Essentially, a tree is not an individual but part of a collective organism; it is instead the forest that is the organism, and the tree just a part of that entity, in much the way that we now think of fungi or lichen as being a much larger entity. By having the many characters, each with a type of tree associated with it (one character is mulberry, another maple, another Douglas fir), their stories and relationships are a metaphor for this idea of the tree collective. The title refers to the name given to the forest canopy and the trees that contribute to it.

To make the conceit work, Powers needs to bring together several disparate characters and storylines in a way that feels natural, and from those show how the outside world can damage or destroy the collective just as the industry destroys the natural world. Unfortunately, the situations that bring these people together felt forced, or at least more contrived than a natural forest, and therefore unbelievable. There is also the difficulty of the three other characters and stories that remain outside of the collective – if the idea is to show the connection, then these stories are superfluous, especially in a book that is already overlong.

I persisted with the book because the writing is excellent, and I really wanted to see the vision realized – to get to that a-ha moment and be rewarded for my perseverance. Alas, in the end the enormous potential of the story and the stories just peters out, and any overarching message is lost in the mess. Along the way, there are some strangely mystical elements (including one character’s near-death experience that is almost comical in its circumstances) and some frankly fantastic behaviour and decisions by characters that make for an ultimately unbelievable story.

Needless to say, I do not recommend this book. I chose it mostly because of its award-winning status and also (I think) because I still want to like nature writing. Sadly, I think this has put me off it even more than before.

Fate: charity shop or little book library.

13 – set somewhere I’ve never been (several places including Ohio, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Nebraska, Montana, the redwood forests of eastern Oregon and California)
25 – an author I’ve never read
34 – a book that has won a prize (including 2019 Pulitzer)
36 – utter drivel (perhaps a bit strong, but not unfair)

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