Presenting Pulitzer Prizes: Eternal Trees in The Overstory

By Ethan Li

Roots. The base network of trees, the beginning. A vast web of bark stretching across the forest floor. Stretching across time, across generations. The great-great-great grandson of a Norwegian man and an Irish woman takes pictures of the family’s chestnut tree in Ohio. A Chinese immigrant’s daughter inherits ethereal jade rings depicting the three trees of life. A maple boy born into a family that plants a tree for each offspring lives with a lack of social skills. A couple who dated by auditioning for community theater live a tumultuous life and think little of trees. A prisoner from the Stanford Prison Experiment is saved by a grove of fig trees after a fall from a plane in Thailand. A computer genius lives life crippled after a fall from an oak. A tree scientist publishes a controversial paper claiming trees communicate with each other. A college party girl dies from electrocution in her room. They are the roots, the base that forms the magnificent story that unfolds in The Overstory.

That Richard Powers could unite these eight disparate stories into one cohesive narrative still baffles me. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2019, The Overstory’s central character isn’t a person at all, but rather exists as the trees that give people life; the plot follows suit, honoring the eternal power of trees. The structure is even modeled off the lifespan of a tree: roots, then trunk, then crown, then seeds. 

Where did Powers get the inspiration to dedicate a 502 page book to nature’s wonders? From a giant redwood at Stanford: staggeringly big yet rarely considered, at least by Powers. He stated in an interview with The Guardian, his amazement with the tree was not due to its size or lifespan, but rather that he had been “blind” to the “amazing creatures” for so long. Having somewhat of an epiphany, Powers strived to underscore that, while environmentalism has focused on protecting “our” natural resources, those resources haven’t been “ours” at all. Ever. Trees existed before evolution even had the time to consider homo sapiens, and Powers argues trees will exist even when evolution has long forgotten us. Confronting the dar belief that trees will outlive humans, the characters in The Overstory all grapple with the eternity of trees in their own way. 

Even if you feel put off by Powers’ beliefs, at its core, The Overstory is still a story about what we do to honor the lives of trees, and the eight narratives that make up this story are as complex as the trees they are protecting. Each night that I opened the book, I felt I was trekking through the rainforest, analyzing themes and motifs as an explorer would forage through vines and branches on their way to a hidden treasure. Powers’ prose is dense, yes. But he doesn’t write words just to fill a count; the novel is filled with immense detail as he manages stories across the U.S. continent. All the central characters feel fleshed out, with their own rich backstory and unique connection to trees; Powers ensures all characters get a satisfying ending that stands in parallel to their beginnings. Stylistically, the narrator often comments on the story, such as referencing events in the characters’ futures. In this way, Powers acts as the giant redwoods he was inspired by—older than any humans and all-knowing across time, skillfully foreshadowing and referencing to create a truly unique reading experience. 

However, the fact stands that due to Powers’ meticulous writing, the book itself is just not that accessible. Constantly switching points of view, The Overstory can confuse readers, making them feel they are left behind by the author’s vast plans. Even a summary of the book is enough to confuse readers. The Pulitzer Prize describes the book as “an ingeniously structured narrative that branches and canopies like the trees at the core of the story whose wonder and connectivity echo those of the humans living amongst them,” perhaps as a way for the copy writer to show off their complex sentence writing skills. Powers’ writing is both descriptive and vague, leaving much of the themes to be interpreted by the reader. Although not necessarily a bad thing, even I didn’t understand much of Powers’ message near the end of the book, leaving me with a somewhat unsatisfying feeling. No doubt, the Pulitzer Board wanted to honor Powers’ literary achievement in this sprawling book — but we can only guess, as the Board never releases justification for their decisions. Nevertheless, the average reader, especially those in high school, may not have the time to dedicate to this novel. Still, I would encourage anyone to read all 502 pages of The Overstory, even if just to appreciate trees more. Power’s novel truly comes at the most opportune time, a time where climate change gets worse every day and activists get shamed for trying to raise attention. After finishing the story, you may feel guilty whenever you touch the pulp making up a book’s pages forever; you may also want to pick up The Overstory again just to experience the hope, pain, and acceptance it provides to us, and to the trees.