Re-post: Pulitzer Prize in Fiction

The Overstory     Richard Powers     (2018)


I’m re-posting this review, since The Overstory just won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

The Overstory is a novel that’s massive in scope, sophisticated in descriptive power, and disturbing in message.

I hadn’t read  any reviews before I cracked open the cover, where I met nine characters in the first 152 pages, including a farmer in Iowa, a Silicon Valley computer programmer, a Minnesota couple who are community theater buffs, a soldier serving in the Vietnam War, and a budding scientist in Appalachia. I thought that The Overstory might be a set of interwoven short stories about unrelated people from all corners of the United States. The stories are damn fine, and I figured that novelist Powers might extend each story and perhaps have some of these characters meet each other in the remaining 350 pages of the book. I soon caught on, however, that trees seemed to be a common element in the stories, and the bonds between the people in The Overstory mirror the bonds between species in the forests.

Some of Powers’s characters do meet, as they become involved in radical environmental activism on behalf of trees in the 1980s and 1990s. Then the forests of North America take center stage in the narrative. I learned that humans share about a quarter of their genetic makeup with trees, and Powers is highly effective in portraying the sentient qualities and the community attachments of those leafy overstories: “There are no individuals in a forest. Each trunk depends on others.” (279) One human character, a psychologist studying the personality traits of environmentalists, finds that most of them agree with the statement “A forest deserves protection regardless of its value to humans.” (331)

I’m a great fan of forests—especially of hiking through them—so I devoured segments like this one, where a botanist explores an old growth forest in the western Cascades during a damp September: “The sheer mass of ever-dying life packed into each single cubic foot, woven together with fungal filaments and dew-betrayed spiderweb leaves her woozy. Mushrooms ladder up the sides of trunks in terraced ledges. Dead salmon feed the trees. Soaked by fog all winter long, spongy green stuff she can’t name covers every wooden pillar in a thick baize reaching higher than her head.” (134) The description kept my attention for two full pages.

Powers could have framed his book as a nonfiction exposé of the sins of the logging industry, but showing the motivations of fictional “tree huggers” from all walks of life is much more effective in getting across the message that human destruction of forests will eventually, and pretty soon, make our planet unlivable. Put simply:  “Deforestation: A bigger changer of climate than all of transportation put together.” (281) And lest you be deceived, the replanting touted by those who exploit forests for financial gain can never replicate the millennia-old diversity and interconnectedness that clear-cutting obliterates.

If you’ve enjoyed Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, Colin Tudge’s The Secret Life of Trees, Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer, or any of Wendell Berry’s poetry, you should read The Overstory. And for another novel about the devastation of North American forests, see my review of Annie Proulx’s Barkskins.

Vermont Secession?

Radio Free Vermont: A Fable of Resistance     Bill McKibben     (2017)


This novel . . . wait! Bill McKibben doesn’t write novels, does he? Isn’t he the one who produced that groundbreaking book about climate change, The End of Nature, way back in 1989? Isn’t this the guy who founded the climate activism group Yup, same guy! And now he’s broadening his scope to generalized civic resistance and expanding his genres to include prose fiction. And can Bill McKibben write a respectable novel? Absolutely.

The story:  Vern Barclay is a 72-year-old Vermonter who for decades has hosted a radio show on which he interviews local folks, plays a few tracks of music, and covers events like store openings. He stumbles into becoming the leader of a movement for Vermont to secede from the United States, as the US is currently being led by President Trump, the Congress, and the Supreme Court. To Vern’s surprise, the secession movement snowballs, and he goes into hiding on an isolated farm, since he’s being hunted by both state and federal law enforcement officers for his involvement in an act of civic resistance that got him into a pile of shit.

Vern’s sidekicks in his adventure are a teenaged computer geek, a survival camp instructor, and an Olympic athlete. Vern records podcasts for Radio Free Vermont—“underground, underpowered, and underfoot”—as his team plots comical, nonviolent subversive capers. By including in the novel some of Vern’s ad-libbed broadcasts, McKibben can expound for a couple of pages on topics such as the corporatization of America, the value of Vermont’s town-hall decision-making process, and the problems with agricultural subsidies. McKibben does get in a few environmental points, as Vern laments the warming of Vermont’s winters and rejoices over the return of moose to the wild. But this is not primarily a book about the environment. Instead, the time-honored phrase “All politics is local” is extended to its logical conclusion as Vern rehearses the long history of community activism in Vermont, which was originally established in 1777 as an independent republic and only joined the United States in 1791. Throughout the book, the many small, owner-operated breweries in Vermont are promoted by name, as are other products for which the state is famous (hello, Ben and Jerry’s).

I read this book in one sitting, and I laughed out loud at several points. McKibben’s sarcasm ranges from gentle mockery of uptalk (speech that ends every sentence with an interrogative tone) to outright scorn for the private military companies that are employed by the feds—the bumbling operations of “Whitestream” in Radio Free Vermont evoke the infamous Blackwater activities in Iraq. The narrative spirals into incredible territory toward the end, but that’s part of the appeal of this novel. It’s a fable. In an “Author’s Note” at the back of the book, McKibben acknowledges that secession is not really a viable option. That isn’t what Radio Free Vermont is about. Instead, I think McKibben wants to show us how an appeal to reasonableness, combined with deft use of the internet and the media, can encourage the American populace to rise up against policies that undermine ethics, morality, and the rule of law. He may be speaking only to the converted, but his voice is loud.

Drabble Tackles Mortality

The Dark Flood Rises     Margaret Drabble     (2016)

By taking her title and epigraph from DH Lawrence’s “The Ship of Death,” Margaret Drabble alerts readers that there’s going to be a lot about mortality in this book.

Drabble’s novels over the past fifty-plus years have often related to the period of life that she is in at the time of the writing. Since she’s now in her late 70s, The Dark Flood Rises features mostly characters who are advanced in age. It’s an ensemble cast, with Fran Stubbs as the one whose interior musings we learn most about.

Fran, who works as a consultant on housing for the elderly, is seventy-something but doesn’t want to retire. She still drives all around Britain inspecting housing facilities and attending conferences. Drabble takes us inside Fran’s head, where we hear her extended thoughts on architecture and traffic, on Vikings and soft-boiled eggs. Given her profession, Fran can’t help but have her attention directed to the subjects of old age and death quite frequently. In addition to Fran, we also meet an extended circle of her colleagues, family, friends, and friends of friends, who have an assortment of ailments and personal losses. Most live in Britain, but some are expats living off the coast of Spain in the Canary Islands, a popular tourist and retirement destination for Britons.

The plot of The Dark Flood Rises is somewhat diffuse but nevertheless engrossing, as Fran helps out her bedridden ex-husband, her son (whose girlfriend has died suddenly), and friends in various states of ill health. Drabble describes Fran as living “in the world of obituaries now, in the malicious crepuscular light of memorial services.” (178) Meanwhile, elderly Britons in the Canary Islands are surrounded by picture-postcard delights, but the clock ticks for them also. All these characters are drawn in detail as they turn to drugs or alcohol or denial or opera or religious ritual or adaptive technologies to ease their situations. This summary makes the novel sound grim and macabre, but it actually has many comic incidents:  Fran getting her car stuck in a muddy field, her ex-husband trying to seduce his young caregiver, her friend Josephine teaching an adult education class.

Along the way we get magnificent tours of the English landscape and extended historical observations about the Canaries. The language is very rich, as you might expect from Drabble. Her cumulative adjectives are especially impressive—for instance, “the flowing sunlit electric-green weed-fronded depths of the slowly flowing water” or “the faded painted peeling pale blue of the woodwork.”

Bubbling below the surface narrative of The Dark Flood Rises, alarming destructive forces on a planetary level reflect the grappling of individuals with transience. Flood waters inundate Britain, perhaps due to global climate change. Hordes of refugees fleeing the Middle East and Africa point to failures of political systems. Volcanic and seismic activity in the Canary Islands seem to indicate that Earth itself is groaning tectonically. Is the apocalypse near? Are people too obsessed with their own petty concerns—or even with major humanitarian issues—to notice? Is it better to over-prepare for death or to under-prepare? Is a lingering death or a sudden death preferable? In The Dark Flood Rises, life churns on, but disaster lurks in the rivers and under the mountains.

Readers over the age of about 50 will likely appreciate The Dark Flood Rises most. However, for readers at all stages of life, it’s an excellent examination of the vagaries of aging, set against the large-scale environmental and ethical challenges that humanity faces.

Proulx and the Forest

Barkskins     Annie Proulx     (2016)

In the year 1693, we meet the original “barkskins” of Annie Proulx’s gigantic novel.  René Sel and Charles Duquet are poor young Frenchmen who take their chances in agreeing to cross the Atlantic and serve for three years as loggers in return for a promise of land of their own. Arriving in the maritime regions of New France (now Canada), René and Charles are stunned by the brutal weather, the vicious mosquitoes, and the virgin forests of unimaginable magnitude.


The two axe-wielders take divergent paths in the wilderness. René Sel sticks with his backbreaking job, reluctantly marries a native Mi’kmaq woman, and dooms his descendants to lives of hard labor in the forests to which they are constantly drawn. The Sel family gets stuck in a racial borderland between European and indigenous cultures and never thrives.

Charles Duquet, however, quickly abandons the tree felling and makes his fortune, first in furs and then in lumber, changing his name to Duke along the way. Charles is the consummate shark, founding a dynasty and a business empire.

Over the three hundred years that Proulx follows these two fictional families, both the Dukes and the Sels exploit the forests—the Dukes through land deals and the Sels by actually chopping down tree after tree after tree. The branches of their families occasionally brush against each other. (The characters are so numerous that I needed to flip frequently to the genealogical charts at the back of the book.) Sometimes Proulx pauses and develops a character in depth. At other times she tosses out names and moves on with her plot.

In the end, the main character of Barkskins is the forest—that vast forest that stretches across much of the North American continent at the beginning of the book. Although the species vary as the barkskins and lumber barons move westward, clearing the land, I think Proulx sees all the trees of North America as part of one mystical body. She’s at her most eloquent in describing this character.

When the surveyors in her story get to what will become the state of Michigan, they find sugar maple, beech, yellow birch, oak, hickory, pine, hemlock, spruce, and fir in forests so dense that the paths of the Native Americans are almost impossible to follow. The huge diameters of the trees are a challenge to the technology of the period. I pored over the descriptions of my home state’s trees, in awe of Proulx’s rich language.

She is, in effect, writing a eulogy for the North American forest, which has become a victim of human depredation, part of a global destruction of the environment. As Proulx takes us through the centuries, we see the respect that native hunter-gatherer societies had for the natural world give way to the Europeans’ demands for tillable land and space for cities. Feeding and housing hordes of immigrants increasingly take priority. The forest sighs, weeps, groans, and dies.

The human toll exacted by the felling of those hundreds of millions of trees is not ignored by Proulx. Gruesome deaths, either directly or indirectly related to the timber industry, abound. I found these deaths difficult to stomach; picture the possibilities with axes, lumber mill saws, huge jams of logs rolling through river rapids, and the menacing branches of toppling trees.

This is a glorious but tragic novel, a moral statement about the failure of humans to be stewards of our planet’s abundance. Yes, Proulx’s ending is weak, her narrative seeming to dwindle like the forest itself. In 1693 no one could imagine that the North American forest would ever end. The tragedy that Proulx documents is not one cataclysmic event that's easily recognized. Rather, it’s the loss of one tree after another, until the forest is gone.