At the beginning of the novel, Olivia is a college student almost ready to graduate, and she is characterized by cynicism, ambivalence, and recklessness. One night when she is high, she touches an electrical socket and dies from electrocution. When she wakes, she has a new consciousness permeated by her conviction that her life’s mission is to save the trees. On her journey across the country to join the protesters, she meets Nick Hoel and the two of them join up together after they see their worldviews line up; they eventually fall deeply in love. As an activist, Olivia becomes increasingly more spiritual, prophetic, and removed from the day-to-day. She is able to convene with the trees like no one else, which gives her an aura of authority among the protestors. She fears no physical harm, either from nature or the forces against the protestors. She and Nick live for a year in Mimas, a massive redwood slated for destruction, and then, after it is brought down, end up engaging in acts of arson with their fellow eco-terrorists Adam, Mimi, and Douglas. Olivia is killed in their last action when their explosions do not go off properly, and she is left wondering what went wrong with her conviction that they would be successful.
Nick Hoel (Watchman)
Nick is somewhat of a slacker at the beginning of the book. He has been coasting through life on insurance money, living at the Hoel family farm, and now that the money has run out, he realizes that he needs to find some kind of direction in his life. Nick is an artist, but is not very successful. He has a deep connection to trees, because his ancestor planted a chestnut tree on the Hoel farm; this bound them for generations, as the Hoel men photographed the tree regularly to capture its growth and change. Nick’s life changes forever when he meets Olivia, who randomly stops in when she sees his insouciant but serious sign “Free Tree Art” on the road. He is mesmerized by her, and begins to see his fate knitted with hers. His consciousness grows, and he becomes as committed to the fight to save the trees as she is. The two spend a year in Mimas together and fall in love. Nick engages in acts of eco-terrorism with his peers, his main job the writing of searing and convicting messages to the public. After the last action goes awry and Olivia is killed, Nick becomes estranged from the others. He wanders as a vagrant and continues to write his messages. He is never caught by the authorities.
Mimi Ma (Mulberry)
The daughter of an immigrant Chinese engineer who committed suicide, Mimi was raised with a strong work ethic, and as she grows older, she realizes that she wants to honor her father by protecting the trees that she sees across the street from her office. This expands into wider activism in which Douglas, whom she meets by her favorite trees after they are destroyed, is always by her side. She takes the tree name "Mulberry" because her father planted a mulberry tree in their yard. She is smart, opinionated, fierce. After the failed arson attempt in which Olivia is killed, she firmly breaks ties with the others, including Douglas, who by this time had become her lover. She moves to San Francisco, hoping to avoid the authorities. She becomes a renowned psychologist (under a pseudonym), pioneering a completely silent form of therapy. In her later years she agonizes over her actions and tries to come to terms with them, and with her relationship with the trees.
Adam Appich (Maple)
As a young man, Adam had a somewhat tempestuous life: his father was abusive, his mother called him “slow,” his siblings were fickle with him, and he was treated poorly by classmates who were derisive towards his “differences.” He turned his attention to the natural world as a child (his father planted a tree for each sibling, and his was a beloved maple), and then became captivated by psychology as a high school student when he came across a book about humans’ cognitive biases. In higher education he studied with a renowned professor, then began his own graduate school program. His dissertation blended these two interests together when he devised the subject matter—environmental protesters and what drives them. Adam encounters Nick and Olivia, and comes to embrace their ethos. He gets involved in the movement and moves into eco-terrorism. He considers himself more pragmatic than them, especially when he refuses to get help for Olivia when she is dying because they would all be found out. After the group disbands, he continues on in his teaching career and marries and has a child. He is living in New York, wandering around the Occupy Movement, when he encounters Douglas. They have a tense but emotional meeting. In its aftermath, though, Adam is arrested because Douglas was working with authorities and gave them Adam. Surprisingly, Adam is not too distressed about his conviction and sentencing to seventy upon seventy years in jail, reasoning that it is shorter than the lifespan of a tree.
Douglas Pavlicek (Doug-fir)
As a younger man, Douglas enlisted in the Stanford Prison Experiment, which was a study of the psychological effects of power versus perceived power. Douglas has no family and so enlists in various institutions that can provide him with one. After the prison experiment, he joins the military. While flying a plane during the Vietnam War, he is shot out of the sky and falls into a banyan tree, which saves his life. His heroic actions in helping his crew escape net him numerous military awards, but he has a bum leg and is discharged. He travels the country with no specific destination in mind, and, to his disgust, begins to see the deforestation that is taking place. He decides to try to do something to reverse this and signs up to become part of a re-planting team. This is rewarding at first, but he realizes that his dedication and work have been wasted when a man at a bar tells him that the only people to profit from this are actually the logging and construction companies. Douglas is galvanized into more aggressive action. He meets Mimi and the two join the protestors around the country; they eventually begin a romantic relationship, united by their shared cause. He takes the nickname “Doug-fir” and engages in criminal acts of trespassing, vandalism, etc. After Mimas is cut down, he and Mimi, Adam, Olivia, and Nick carry out acts of eco-terrorism. Their last action fails and Olivia is killed, so the group disperses. Douglas desperately wants to remain with Mimi, but she prohibits this so the authorities will not find them out. Douglas begins drifting, eventually settling down in an abandoned old forest town to act as a veritable tour guide. A young woman who stays with him one night finds his journal of his earlier deeds and turns him in. There is enough information to convict him for arson and murder, but he cuts a deal and turns in Adam to protect Mimi.
Patricia has been fascinated by trees for her entire life, and at a young age learns from her father that they are able to communicate with each other. She turns this fascination into a life's work, but her early article on the communication between trees, while initially well-received, is eventually discredited. Patricia loses her teaching position and becomes suicidal, but after changing her mind, she decides to live a solitary life as a park ranger. She loves the vibrant forest she traverses and stewards, and does her best to avoid people. One day she meets two researchers and learns that while she has been out of commission, her work has been reassessed and expanded upon. She is vindicated, but wary of becoming more public. She works at a research station and marries its station manager, a kindly older man named Dennis. He encourages her to write a book, which becomes The Secret Forest, a work of science but also of striking poetry and intimacy. It is a bestseller and she is grudgingly pulled back into the larger world. Her understanding of the eventual doom of the planet prompts her to start Seedbank, a place where thousands of seeds from around the world can be kept safe for some unknowable future in which they may be used to repopulate the world’s forests. As the years pass, Dennis dies of old age. Patricia is invited to speak to a conference of the world’s most prominent people. They want an illusionist and a bringer of hope, she realizes, so she decides to give a stirring and honest speech and then commit suicide via drinking poisonous tree extracts in front of the gathering to make a statement—this is the only thing humans can really do for the planet.
A Norwegian immigrant who works at the Brooklyn Navy Yard as a young man until he marries an Irish girl, Vi, and moves to Iowa. He plants six chestnut trees and watches them thrive and then die—all but one. He has a large family and his children remain on the property and watch over the tree.
Jorgen's wife, a strong Irish girl who helps Jorgen run the farm.
Son of Jorgen and Vi, John inherits the farm and modernizes it. He dies at age 58 from what is apparently a heart attack. He is the one who begins the family legacy of taking pictures of the chestnut tree and how it changes over time.
John's son. He carries on the photography project, and when he goes off to fight in WWI, he tells his son to do the same. He is killed at Argonne.
Frank Hoel, Jr.
Frank's young son. He keeps his promise to his father and continues the daily ritual and its "blind purpose" of photographing the tree.
Frank Jr.'s son.
Ma Sih Hsuin (Winston Ma)
A Chinese student from a wealthy family who attains a visa to go to America to study engineering. His father sends him before the Chinese Communists establish a foothold, giving him three precious rings and an ancient scroll of the Arhats to take with him. In America he starts a family, works hard, and rarely talks about China until Mimi tells him other children were making fun of her. He loves the outdoors and obsessively documents the family's trips. When he becomes distressed about the mulberry tree dying, he takes his own life.
The wealthy and educated patriarch of a Chinese family. He sends his son away to escape the imminent Communist repression; readers later learn he was sent to a work camp.
Winston's wife, the daughter of a failed southern planting family. She is a good wife and mother but over time begins to slip into insanity and dementia.
The middle daughter of Winston and Charlotte, sister to Mimi and Amelia.
The youngest Ma daughter, sister to Mimi and Carmen.
Adam's eldest sister. She vanishes without a trace when she is a young woman, an event which haunts the family.
Adam's other sister. Jean looks out for Adam the most out of his siblings.
Adam's brother. Emmett is not very patient with his brother's differences.
Adam's father. While he seems to love his children, he loses his temper easily and becomes violent. He hurts Adam and Adam's mother at least once.
Ray Brinkman is an intellectual property lawyer, and he is attracted to Dorothy, a stenographer where he works. The two of them start their dating life in an unconventional way—by going to amateur theater auditions for Macbeth and getting the parts. Their relationship is up and down for awhile, as Dorothy is wary of being tied down and being someone’s property, but they marry eventually. Their early years are rough because they cannot have children, though Dorothy desires a child intensely, and they have to find other ways to find meaning. They read, take up multiple hobbies, and continue to act. Ray researches the curious question of whether or not trees have standing. Time passes and though Ray is content, Dorothy is restless and begins having an affair. Ray knows about this but loves his wife and does not want her to leave; he does not care what she does secretly as long as she is with him. However, Dorothy decides she has to leave Ray. After he hears the news, he suffers a brain aneurysm. While she plans to only stay with him until he stabilizes, she eventually commits to him and the extensive care he requires for the long-term. She is patient and loving in ways she never was in their youth, and together the two of them find meaning in each other and the natural world. For his part, Ray is capable only of minor speech and expressions, but he is able to engage with Dorothy.
Dorothy Cazaly is a stenographer for the law firm where Ray works. The two of them start their dating life in an unconventional way—by going to amateur theater auditions for Macbeth and getting the parts. Their relationship is up and down for awhile, as Dorothy is wary of being tied down and being someone’s property, but they marry eventually. Their early years are rough because they cannot have children, though Dorothy desires a child intensely, and they have to find other ways to find meaning. They read, take up multiple hobbies, and continue to act. Dorothy, however, is restless and begins having an affair. She decides to leave Ray but he suffers a brain aneurysm. While she plans to only stay with him until he stabilizes, she eventually commits to him and the extensive care he requires for the long-term. She is patient and loving in ways she never was in their youth, and together the two of them find meaning in each other and the natural world.
Neelay Mehta is the son of immigrant parents from India, and grows up outside of Silicon Valley. He is particularly close to his father and the two spend the boy’s youth building computers and coding. When he is a teenager, he falls out of a tree and is paralyzed from the waist down, needing a wheelchair and care for the rest of his life. This does not stop him from attending Stanford and becoming a master coder. He has a spiritual encounter with the trees in Stanford’s quad, and devises the idea for an epic game of worlds. His fame grows in the valley as he puts out his greatest creation, Mastery, and its even more accomplished successors. He forms a company and becomes extremely rich, though he cares little for the money. His last project is one that will allow players to devise ways to save the natural world through ingenuity, experiment, and verve.
Neelay's beloved father who jumpstarts the boy's interest in computers and coding. When Neelay is a boy, the two of them spend days and months and years upgrading their programs. As he gets older and feebler, he has to move to a clinic in Minnesota, but he is able to remotely experience Neelay's worlds with him.
Neelay's mother. She is a traditional Indian matriarch, concerned that her son is not married but generally supportive of his business acumen.
Neelay's English teacher who becomes frustrated with the boy when she sees him coding in class and not paying attention to the novels they are discussing. When he uses a curse word with her, she grows angry and plans to punish him. Instead, he falls out the tree and she awkwardly comes to visit him in the hospital and return his notebook to him.
Patricia's father, an ag extension agent with a passion for science and nature. He takes Patricia with him on his road trips, sharing his knowledge and pushing her to think about what humans are doing to the natural world. He dies when she is a teenager.
A research scientist Patricia meets in the woods where she is working for the BLM. He tells her that her work has been vindicated and eventually provides her with a research grant once she starts working with him and his colleagues at the Dreier Research Station in the Cascades.
The kindly station manager at the site where Patricia finds work after her reputation and research are rehabilitated. Dennis and Patricia marry, and he is a supportive and loving husband to her for the duration of his life (he dies before she does, being about a decade older than her).
A charismatic, thoughtful leader of the Life Defense Force, Mother N preaches nonviolence and helps the eco-warriors strategize and carry out their obstructionist actions. She and Moses are killed when their office is bombed.
A charming reporter who interviews Neelay about his projects.
Professor Rubin Rabinowski
The author of a work that Adam becomes obsessed with, Rabinowski is also a professor at Fortuna College and helps Adam matriculate there as well. He is known for speaking about humans' cognitive blindness. He is delivering a lecture before finals when he collapses and dies of a myocardial infarction.
Professor Mieke Van Dijk
Adam's dissertation advisor whom he finds quite attractive. She helps him get to his planned topic of study—the behavior and motivations of tree-huggers.
One of the eco-warriors of the LDF.
The art and antiquities dealer Mimi consults about selling the scroll. She realizes he is trying to underpay her and manages to get him to give her the real value of the scroll.
Dorothy's lover-turned-boyfriend who wants to start a life with her, but she is still taking care of Ray and refuses to stop. Alan decides he cannot share her and breaks up with her.
A woman who comes to see Mimi for therapy and endures the hours of silent eye contact, emerging a changed person.
One of the eco-warriors who welcomes Nick and Olivia into the fray. He and Mother N die when the office is bombed.
The Overstory Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Overstory is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.