When I first read the reviews of Richard Powers’ wonderful new novel, The Overstory, I immediately ordered a copy. Fortuitously, it is a First Edition, which I display prominently in one of the bookcases in my family room. It has since won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The broader theme of the novel is the unrestrained use of corporate power in support of the profit motive regardless of the impact on common decency, the climate and the environment. Specifically, it’s about the protection of the northwest forest ecosystems and the implications of their destruction. I felt that was the overstory. It follows a group of misfit activists, who arrive, individually, in the forests of the Pacific Northwest to join forces and protect the forest ecosystems against unrestrained industrial logging. Their actions put them in legal jeopardy and as they become more extreme, their jeopardy increases. There are several heart rendering and emotional scenes.
One of my favorite American authors is Edward Abbey. As I read The Overstory, I couldn’t help but observe similarities between The Overstory and Abbey’s masterpiece, the Monkey Wrench Gang.
Written in 1975, it, too, was about a band of environmental activists. In Abbey’s case, it took place in his desert Southwest. Edward Abbey was a cantankerous character who was a native of New Mexico. (Whenever I travel I carry a copy of his A Voice Crying in the Wilderness. The aphorisms contained in this slight volume always put a smile on my face. I suppose I share his tendency towards cantankerousness.)
The novel is about a quartet of friends who become disgusted by the Corporate assault on the environment and ecosystems of the desert Southwest. So, they take action by disrupting that assault by any and all means available and necessary. Needless to say, they, too, create legal risk for themselves.
In the case of both The Overstory and The Monkey Wrench Gang, the protection of the environment justifies any action taken by the protagonists to disrupt the “forces of progress.”
I have to admit that I couldn’t get into The Overstory initially. I set it aside until I was in a better frame of mind to read it. Later, after it won its Pulitzer, I thought I would try again. Rather than beating up my First Edition. I purchased a paperback edition to read.
It was superb. It began very slowly. Powers took his time introducing the key players and bringing them together via their individual stories, which ultimately became their collective story. My favorite character was the academic, Patricia Westerford. I’m not going to say any more about the characters other than to suggest that Powers does an excellent job of creating their individual characters, their transformations and commitments.
The Overstory is the activist novel for the climate change era just as the Monkey Wrench Gang became the novel that arguably set the stage for environmental activism.
Both are well worth reading; particularly, if you believe that there is an interconnection between the climate, environmentalism, economics and activism.