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Richard Powers’ The Overstory Wins the Pulitzer

A Story About Trees Wins the Pulitzer

This month, Richard Powers won the Pulitzer for his novel The Overstory. I was thrilled to hear the news, as I loved the book, both for its excellent writing and, even more astonishingly to me, the focus on trees as main characters. The importance of trees to our world is one if it’s main themes.

As someone who wrote a novel with similar things in mind, I found The Overstory fascinating, thrilling, and validating: the idea of using trees as characters—these living things that give us so much but which we take for granted, that communicate in ways we can’t always perceive, that represent a deeper story, or rather an over story. My version includes talking squirrels. Powers’ version won the Pulitzer. So slightly different, but somewhat the same. 🙂

Upon hearing about the book I bought it right away, read it voraciously, then went to our local bookstore, The Raven, and bought a copy for my daughter.

What’s All the Fuss?

I cannot describe what Powers has achieved better than Barbara Kingsolver, a wonderful novelist in her own right (I’ve read several of her books and NEED to read more!) who among others has reviewed The Overstory. Kingsolver’s review notes that Powers “hoodwinks” readers who are interested only in stories about humans into discovering that the trees themselves are the ultimate characters.

Kingsolver says:

“His picture really is that big. These characters who have held us rapt for 150 pages turn out to be the shrubby understory, for which we couldn’t yet see the forest. Standing overhead with outstretched limbs are the real protagonists. Trees will bring these small lives together into large acts of war, love, loyalty and betrayal, in a violent struggle against a mortgaged timber company that is liquidating its assets, including one of the last virgin stands of California redwoods. The descriptions of this deeply animate place, including a thunderstorm as experienced from 300 feet up, stand with any prose I’ve ever read.”

Wow, right? 

Kingsolver’s full review can be found here:

Other Articles on Richard Powers and The Overstory

In an interview with The Washington Post, Powers said this of his win for a work of environmental fiction:  “This is one of the chief literary recognitions that this country gives out, and it’s been given to a book that wants above all else to take nonhumans seriously and to take our relationship with those outside of the human world seriously. And that’s encouraging.” 

In the same interview he goes on to describe how desperate he believes our current environmental situation is, and that perhaps his book was a salve to those who would like to see our world valued more than it is currently. 

You can read the full article here

And in an enthralling article in The Guardian, Richard Powers talks about how writing this book changed him and the way he lives his life. It sparked even deeper environmentalism—one that gets to the way we view our resources as humans. I’ll let you read the details further here. Great read. 

Arbor Day and The Overstory – How They Connect

It seems fitting that The Overstory won the Pulitzer just before Arbor Day was celebrated in many states throughout America. Let me explain why…

A Little Background 

Begun by a pioneer and journalist (the editor of Nebraska’s first newspaper), Arbor Day was started in response to pioneers’ need for them on the plains of Nebraska for shade, windbreaks, and building materials. It also arose from his love of trees and shrubs in general. Arbor Day was recognized by the Nebraska Board of Agriculture as an official holiday in 1872, the Board giving out prizes to counties and individuals who planted the most trees on that day. Today all 50 states observe the holiday, the date depending on the planting season for the area. (You can learn more about Arbor Day’s history here). 

A Holiday of Hope

The connection, beyond a love for trees, can be found on the Arbor Day website, where it describes the history of the holiday itself.  It states, 

“Most holidays celebrate something that has already happened and is worth remembering, like the day someone was born or a religious holiday celebrating a past event. Arbor Day reflects a hope for the future. The trees planted on Arbor Day show a concern for future generations. The simple act of planting a tree represents a belief that the tree will grow and, someday, provide wood products, wildlife habitat, erosion control, shelter from wind and sun, beauty, and inspiration for ourselves and our children.”

Based on the Guardian article, Richard Powers would argue that we should look beyond what trees can give us to their worth simply as living things. But this description of Arbor Day does connect to his idea of hope. Of looking ahead rather than behind. Of the idea that what we do today affects tomorrow, for good or for bad. I’m guessing Powers would celebrate such a holiday. 

How I Plan to Celebrate

Though tardy, in honor of Arbor Day, my wife and I plan to plant a new tree in place of the sickly pine we had removed from our front yard. As soon as the stump is gone, I’ll let you know what kind is coming in. (For tree-lovers like me, the anticipation might be enjoyable.)

And in celebration of Richard Powers’ great accomplishment, I’ll be raising a pint just after I plant the mystery sapling. I may even give him a toast, my wife and the tree the only audience. In honor of trees, and of great writing, and of the connection we all share.

Congratulations, Richard Powers, and thank you!

If you’d like to join me in celebrating Arbor Day, better late than never, click here for info on how to plant a tree. 

To learn some fun facts about trees, click here.

To get the first two chapters of my soon-to-be-published book for free, click here.

And to buy a copy of The Overstory, click here or even better, visit your local bookstore!

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