“Writing The Overstory quite literally changed my life, starting with where and how I live,” the author Richard Powers told the Chicago Review of Books. Before writing the book, Powers had been living and teaching in Palo Alto, between tech-centric Silicon Valley and California’s old-growth forests. An encounter with a giant redwood shook him; in a Guardian profile, he describes it as a kind of “religious conversion” that showed him his place in “a system of meaning that doesn’t begin and end with humans.” Powers then began work on the novel, and his research took him to Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains. Months later, he moved there to live deep in the woods, where “walking a trail has become as important to me as writing.”
The Overstory, which won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction on Monday, is as close as it gets to a founding text for Powers’s environmentalism. The novel follows nine characters—among them a Vietnam veteran, a young coding prodigy, and the last descendant of immigrant pioneers—whose close relationships with trees, lasting sometimes for generations, lead them to a deep appreciation of the world’s threatened forests. Nearly all the characters become activists in some form—five of them eventually come together in protest against a timber company—and throughout their personal transformations, the trees around them are so exquisitely rendered that they seem like characters themselves. The result is what the Pulitzer committee praises as “an ingeniously structured narrative” that approaches trees and the threats facing them with wonder, reverence, and an urgency that could be enough to change minds.