88 pages 2 hours read

Richard Powers

The Overstory

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2018

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Summary and Study Guide


The Overstory is a 2018 novel by Richard Powers. Weaving together numerous character narratives, it is the story of a collection of environmental activists and their struggles to make their protests heard by society. It won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Plot Summary

The Hoel family are descended from Norwegian immigrants who moved from New York to a farm in Iowa. Nicolas Hoel, a young artist who lacks direction returns home for Christmas and finds his family dead from a gas leak. The life insurance money allows him to live on the farm and create art pieces, which no one buys, focused mainly on the chestnut tree that was planted by his ancestors.

Mimi Ma is the daughter of a Chinese immigrant named Winston. She and her sisters travel to America’s national parks with her father. She grows up to be an engineer and takes a well-paid job that allows her to travel the world. Winston kills himself, feeling he has no purpose any longer, and Mimi must deal with the aftermath of his suicide.

Adam Appich is a loner as a child. He develops an interest in nature and eventually is accepted to a college to study psychology.

Ray Brinkman and Dorothy Cazaly begin dating, both acting in a production of Macbeth. Eventually, Ray proposes. Dorothy accepts but then changes her mind. After several engagements, they finally marry.

Douglas “Douggie” Pavlicek is orphaned as a teenager. Needing money, he enrolls as a prisoner in the Stanford Prison Experiment. Afterward, he enlists in the military and is sent to Vietnam. Injured, he is sent home, where he plants trees to make amends for the destruction he has caused.

Neelay Mehta is the son of Indian immigrants. His father buys a computer, and Neelay falls in love with coding. One day, he falls from a tree and is paralyzed by his injuries. Confined to a wheelchair, his love for coding grows. At college, he is inspired by a garden and decides to make a video game that reflects the beauty of the natural world.

Patricia Westerford is born with a hearing defect. She travels with her father, learning about nature. This fascination leads to her studying botany and forestry; she becomes convinced that trees are social creatures and publishes a paper on the subject. After being initially well-received, the paper is savaged by her peers. Embarrassed, she retreats from academic life and takes odd jobs that allow her to spend time in America’s forests. Many years later, she meets a group of scientists who tell her that a newfound respect for her ideas has grown. Validated, Patty rejoins the scientific world and marries a man named Dennis. She writes a book on her life’s work and it is hugely successful.

Olivia Vandergriff is a college student struggling at school. One night, she accidently electrocutes herself. She is dead for a minute and ten seconds. When she recovers, she is a changed person. Hearing voices in her head, she begins to drive. She arrives at Nick Hoel’s family farm by chance and convinces him to join an environmentalist protest. Lacking direction, Nick agrees. They join the protest and find themselves living at the top of a giant redwood tree to prevent it from being cut down. They spend a year at the top of the tree.

Ray and Dorothy find out that they cannot have a child. They fill their time with numerous hobbies, particularly reading. Dorothy begins to have an affair and, on the night she tells Ray that she wants a divorce, he has a stroke and is left paralyzed and in need of her constant care. Dorothy takes care of him and they read together, rediscovering their love over many years.

Douggie learns that his replanting efforts are largely in vain. He joins the environmentalist protests, meeting Mimi. They take part in protests and are arrested together.

Neelay works on his video game, and it is a huge success. He releases ever-more-ambitious sequels and becomes a millionaire. As the game becomes more successful and more complex, however, he worries that it has lost its original purpose. Adam plots his graduate thesis. He wants to study the climate protestors. He visits the camp and, on meeting Olivia and Nick, feels inspired to join them. He stays the night at the top of the tree, and, in the morning, the logging company sends a helicopter to flush them out. Finally, Nick and Olivia are forced to leave the tree.

Patty uses her publishing royalties to found a seedbank. She travels the world, collecting seeds to ensure the plant species’ survival.

Adam arrives at a protest camp. Nick and Olivia are already there, as are Mimi and Douggie. When the protest is broken up by the authorities, they decide more radical action is needed. Together, they plot an arson attack. But a mistake happens, and Olivia is killed by the premature blast. The group agree to go their separate ways, fleeing from the authorities.

Nick becomes a drifter, working odd jobs and making what art he can. He struggles to deal with the loss of Olivia and, travelling north, makes a giant mural from parts of the forest. It spells out STILL.

Douggie lives in a remote cabin and writes his life story. A woman discovers his writing and gives it to the police. To reduce his sentence, Douggie tells the police about Adam, who is arrested and sentenced to life in prison. Adam accepts his fate, even though it means losing his professor’s job, his family, and his freedom.

Mimi changes her name and studies to become a therapist. Patty continues her work. Dennis dies, and she accepts an invitation to speak at a conference attended by many of the world’s most powerful people. She wants to raise awareness for her cause. After her lecture, she commits suicide on stage.

Neelay, unable to make his game into what he wants, launches a massive project to find a technological solution to environmental problems. Ray and Dorothy delight in the nature outside their window. They let their garden grow wild despite pressure from their neighbors and the government. Ray dies in his bed.