The Overstory

The Overstory Study Guide

Richard Powers' The Overstory (2018) is an ambitious, profound novel with an urgent environmental message. Spanning multiple time periods and including numerous narrators, it tells the story of a group of activists who are called to protect the last 3% of redwood trees on the Earth. Powers also weaves in the stories of the trees themselves, initially having thought they would be the main characters but deciding to have them play supporting—but crucial—roles.

Powers was teaching writing at Stanford when his walks led him to the Santa Cruz Mountains, where he was promptly astonished by the redwoods there. He had a “religious conversion”—not in the theistic sense, he has explained, but one that left him breathless as to how he had never really noticed the trees around him before. Powers explains, “I was teaching at Stanford and living in Palo Alto, in the heart of Silicon Valley. Just to one side of me was one of the greatest concentrations of wealth and technological might in history: the corporate HQs of Google, Apple, Intel, HP, Facebook, eBay, Cisco, Tesla, Oracle, Netflix, and so many more. To the other side were the Santa Cruz mountains, covered in redwoods. When the scramble for the future down in the valley was too much for me, I would head up to walk in the woods. These were the forests that had been clear-cut to build San Francisco, and it seemed to me that they had grown back wonderfully. But one day, I came across a single tree that had, for whatever reason, escaped the loggers. It was the width of a house, the length of a football field, and as old as Jesus or Caesar. Compared to the trees that had so impressed me, it was like Jupiter is to the Earth. I began to imagine what they must have looked like, those forests that would not return for centuries, if ever. It seemed to me that we had been at war for a long time, trees and people, and I wondered if it might be possible for things ever to go any other way. Within a few months, I quit my job at Stanford and devoted myself full time to writing The Overstory.

Powers began researching, reading more than one hundred books that included field guides, scientific tomes, and other esoteric works. This period of researching and writing The Overstory was “one of the happiest periods of my life,” he told an interviewer, and “this book has changed my life profoundly.”

Powers explains that his goal was to raise consciousness about what humans are doing to the planet. He suggests literature has a role in this, that “there’s a whole new story that we’re going to have to learn how to tell. We won’t be dispensing with the social, the political—not by a long shot. But to add to this environmental drama, that’s going to be a marvelous task and a great source of meaning for the writers of the future.”

Upon release, Powers' book was met with critical acclaim. Margaret Atwood stated, “If Powers were an American writer of the 19th century, which writer would he be? He’d probably be the Herman Melville of ‘Moby Dick’.” The Washington Post review said The Overstory was “Remarkable . . . This ambitious novel soars up through the canopy of American literature and remakes the landscape of environmental fiction”; the San Francisco Chronicle called it “a rousing, full-throated hymn to Nature’s grandeur”; the Times (London) said the work “is very nearly a masterpiece . . . On almost every page of The Overstory you will find sentences that combine precision and vision”; and Bookpage extolled it as “vast, magnificent, and disturbing . . . an array of human temperaments and predicaments as manifold as Charles Dickens’ or Leo Tolstoy’s . . . I have never read anything so pessimistic and yet so hopeful.”

In 2019, The Overstory was awarded the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It was also shortlisted for 2018's Man Booker Prize.