I hardly know how to describe this book. It's a novel about trees. Or a novel about people and how their lives are affected by trees, from the young woman who becomes a scientist passionately devoted to learning about trees and writes a book similar to this one, to a young man in Vietnam whose life is saved when he lands in a tree after abandoning his burning airplane, or another young man whose family has been photographing a rare American chestnut for generations, or a young college student on the verge of flunking out of college who dies in a freak accident but comes back to life desperately needing to save trees.
It's also by necessity a book about the dire consequences of destroying trees and the havoc man is wreaking upon the planet by doing so. Powers is clearly on the side of saving the trees, and maybe it's because I'm on the same side that I didn't find him preachy at all. Instead, I marveled at the large cast of characters, all fully fleshed out, and how the stories gradually intertwine even while covering decades. He's a cerebral writer and also deeply interested in science, and he's clearly done an intense amount of research. But his writing doesn't come across as didactic, just literary and thoughtful, and so engrossing.
I did have a couple of quibbles along the way, including how he delays relaying a specific piece of information to the reader, but it's fairly clear what that info is early on. There was no need to hold it back. On the other hand, he lightly weaves in what might be magical realism--or is it? Maybe it's just the mental health of the characters involved. Or maybe it's both.
But in the end, while I've always been a fan of trees and a person who's growing more and more concerned about environmental issues, this book made me hyper aware of trees and their role in the world. I read the last third of the book while on a trip in the northernmost part of Minnesota, along Lake of the Woods, where trees are plenteous:
But there's also a paper mill up there that's a big source of jobs, so driving down the long highway, it wasn't uncommon to come across areas where trees are being logged. It would have made me a little sad before, but while reading this book? Heartbroken. And feeling like I need to learn a lot more about trees.
Highly recommended, but allow some time--it's not a quick read.