It is not often that a writer elevates trees to the status of characters in a novel. But Richard Powers does precisely that in his 2018 book "Overstory." Along with the world's trees, Powers takes us through the lives of eight human characters:

- Nicholas Hoel. An Iowa farmer whose family has for generations lived in the shadow of one of North America's last remaining chestnut trees
- Mimi Ma. Her father planted a mulberry tree before taking his own life
- Adam Appich. His parents planted a maple tree in his honor.
- Ray Brinkman and Dorothy Cazaly. A couple who date and marry.
- Douglas Pavlicek. A banyan tree saves his life when it cushions his fall after his plane is shot down. He dedicates his life to planting seedlings.
- Neelay Mehta. A fall from a tree paralyzed him as a young boy. He creates a popular video game.
- Patricia Westerford. The scientific community ridicules her for publishing a paper suggesting that trees can communicate with one another.
- Olivia Vandergriff. Visions during a near-death experience convince her to travel to California and attempt to save the Redwoods.

Each of these people comes to appreciate the value trees have to the planet's ecology and the danger men pose to the ecosystem's delicate balance.

Just like a tree rises from roots to trunk to crown before releasing its seeds for the next generation, Powers divides the book into four sections: "Roots," "Trunk," "Crown," and "Seeds."

"Roots" introduces the main characters. It reads like a collection of independent short stories.

In "Trunk," the characters come together, joining forces to fight against clear-cut logging that is eliminating the world's old-growth forests at an alarming rate. One protest goes horribly wrong, causing a death and sending them all into hiding.

"Crown" sees each of them trying to rebuild their lives, fearful that the authorities will catch up with them.

The book concludes with "Seeds," which reveals the ultimate fate of each character.

The activists rally to protect what they perceive as the injustice of lumber companies stripping the land. They stand up for the rights of trees. When peaceful demonstrations prove ineffective, they resort to more radical methods, which leads to a death, which plunges their lives into chaos.

The author does an excellent job of weaving together seemingly unrelated lives, describing how they came to care about the plight of trees and uniting them in a common cause. He also raises issues about our approach to Earth's natural resources. Given the speeches transcribed in the book, Powers appears to favor the protestors' philosophies. However, he also cautions against extreme behavior in pursuing a noble goal. These behaviors can have disastrous consequences.

Powers's prose is consistently excellent. He treats the reader to sentences like "What you make from a tree should be at least as miraculous as what you cut down." and "This is not our world with trees in it. It's a world of trees, where humans have just arrived." When he writes of a character telling an audience about trees, Powers writes:

"She could tell them about a simple machine needing no fuel and little maintenance, one that steadily sequesters carbon, enriches the soil, cools the ground, scrubs the air, scales easily to any size. A tech that copies itself and even drops food for free. A device so beautiful it's the stuff of poems. If forests were patentable, she'd get an ovation."

"The Overstory" is a dark, powerful novel of environmentalism and human struggle.