“How can we convince people that we are right?”
“The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.”
The Overstory, by Richard Powers, a monumental book that takes us across the globe and across millennia of time, contains dozens of overlapping stories. Each of them is a gem. Each can change your mind and your heart.
On page 26 of this near-500 page book, I came across a story that gave me chills. Growing up in the Midwest where there were few Chinese people, I thought my family’s story would be lost in the mist of time… unless I told it. But there it was in The Overstory! Winston Ma, the dad of one of our heroes, Mimi, left Shanghai as a young man in 1948. He sailed on the American Presidents Line’s refitted troop transport ship, the USS General Meigs. He slept on a bunk and was seasick. He thought the food atrocious. He studied at Carnegie Tech and eventually settled in the Midwest. He married an American woman and had three daughters.
My dad, Andrew Luh, left Shanghai in 1948 on the USS General W.H.Gordon, a sister ship to the General Meigs. He also slept on a bunk. He was too seasick to eat on the two-week trip to San Francisco. When he arrived, he ate a hot dog that cost a nickel.
Dad eventually settled in St. Louis. I didn’t know any of these details of Dad’s coming-to-America experience until I asked him in 2005, when he was in his 80s and only three years before a devastating stroke left him unable to speak. Unlike the Ma family, my parents were married and had two children before Dad left for America. Mom, my sister and I joined Dad after a journey of our own to escape “Red China” as refugees.
Some other aspects really hit home. One was Mimi’s complaint, “It’s all Mao’s fault…We’d be millionaires if it wasn’t for him.” I too experienced those spasms of bitterness from time to time over our family’s displacement.
Another uncanny similarity to my dad was Winston Ma’s love of fishing. In reading about Mimi’s dad watching for “hatch – those simultaneous equations in multiple unknowns that one must solve to think like a fish,” I am transported back to our family’s fishing trips to the Lake of the Ozarks. Mom and the girls fished off the dock. But Dad, in his brown, hard-soled shoes, would walk on the pebbly, scrubby shore along the edge of the lake casting his artificial froggy lure, waiting for bass to strike.
One scene broke my heart. When Mimi was clearing out her parents’ effects, she came across a photo: “Her grandparents in Shanghai, in their Sunday finest, holding up the photo of American girls they would never meet.” Dad never saw his mom again after 1948. I never got to see her again after I left Shanghai in 1952 when I was five. (China and the US were closed to each other until the late 1970s after Nixon’s trip to China.)
Mimi’s mom Charlotte and my mom also had a commonality: dementia. On a road trip when the girls get into a fight in the back seat, “Charlotte gives up trying to control them. No one suspects yet, but she has already begun to slip into the long private place that each passing year will deepen.” I have often wondered just when Mom began to forget. Was it when she didn’t object to Bill and me being a couple without getting married? Was she already down that road when she didn’t tell me my uncle in China had died until six month later? It was obvious in 1997 when she started to loop the same stories.
Mimi Ma is one of nine main characters. All the characters have fully-formed personalities and surprising and detailed family backgrounds. In a way, these nine remind me of the superheroes of comic books: the X-Men or the Justice League of America. Like super heroes, each has an elaborate origin story. Like action heroes, Powers’ characters have a range of special talents, some in the realm of “super,” such as Olivia’s communications with the “emissaries of creation” after coming back from being dead. Others are more mundane, like Nick’s artistic talents or Ray’s expertise in patent law. And, like all heroes, each character has an obstinate, passionate belief in their vision of what is right and a determination to pursue it.
In the way that comic book heroes have logos (the bat, the spider, the lightening bolt for the Flash), each one of Powers’ protagonists is identified with a species of tree (chestnut, mulberry, maple, fig, maidenhair, and so on). The nine, singly and in intersecting groups, had all come to the decision that they needed to save trees from destruction due to mankind’s greed and laziness and ignorance. In our rampant quest for comfort, convenience and wealth, we are using up natural resources that were eons in the making. Doug concludes, “We’re cashing in a billion years of planetary saving bonds and blowing it on assorted bling.”
The tactics they use to save trees vary wildly: a series of self-renewing computer games like Sim City but a thousand times more creative; a book explaining how trees are sentient, not unlike Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate―Discoveries from A Secret World; a seed bank of every species of tree in existence; planting new seedlings on clear cut areas, Johnny Appleseed style. The protests include sit-ins, putting bodies in the path of bulldozers, living in the canopy of tall trees, and acts of eco-terrorism.
Ostensibly, they are saving trees. Of course, they are actually saving the world and everyone in it — the job of every super hero — because all living things depend on photosynthesis: “plants eat light and air and water, and the stored energy goes on to make and do all things.” As Olivia, aka Maidenhair, says, “People and trees are in this together.”
The Overstory by Richard Powers is an epic novel. It is larger than life, at least human life, in every way. In addition to a marvelously interwoven story, Powers gives us a keen observation of nature and beautiful and evocative writing.
His descriptions of the world from the timeline and point of view of trees are at once grand and fantastical. Before the blight that started in 1904 killed every chestnut, they stretched from the Appalachians to the Gulf. “The chestnuts up North were majestic. But the southern trees are gods….By 1940, the fungus takes everything…. Four billion trees in the native range vanish into myth.”
Here is a description of the forest of the Cascades where Patty lives for a while. “Steep, steely streams scour through rickles of rock where salmon spawn –water cold enough to kill all pain. Falls flash over ridges turned jade by moss and tumbled with shed branches. In the scattered openings, shot here and there through the understory, sit secret congregations of salmonberry, elderberry, huckleberry, snowberry, devil’s club, ocean spray and kinnikinnick. Great straight conifer monoliths fifteen stories high and a car-length thick hold a roof above all. The air around her resounds with noise of life getting on with it. Cheebee of invisible winter wrens. Industrial pock from jackhammering woodpeckers. Warbler buzz. Thrush flutter. The scatterings of beeping grouse across the forest floor. At night, the cool hoot of owls chills her blood. And always, the tree frogs’ song of eternity.”
The Overstory tells of the wonders of the natural world in a way that changes how I view its resources. It offers an imaginative way for me –and you – to link our lives to our ancestors and to the world around us. Now, that’s a good story.
Tell me: What is your origin story?