I was on vacation last week and took one of my periodic side trips into fiction.
Greenwood, by Canadian writer Michael Christie, is a novel about family and trees and the relationship between them. It spans four generations of the Greenwood family over the course of about 130 years.
A tragedy and the secrets surrounding it tie the whole story together.
By Michael Christie
Hogarth, New York, 2019
The book is organized like the trunk of a tree with nested rings forming the structure. It starts in 2038 with Jacinda (“Jake”) Greenwood, an over-qualified tour guide on an island off the coast of British Columbia that holds one of the last old-growth forests remaining on Earth after a global climate disaster called the Great Withering.
The story proceeds backwards in roughly 30-year jumps through previous generations of the family until its earliest beginnings in 1908. From there it moves forward again, revisiting each generation until we rejoin Jake at the end of the book.
Reading Greenwood is much like studying the rings of a tree, starting at the cambium, the outermost ring where new growth takes place, then proceeding through the dead inner rings of the heartwood and finally back out through the cambium again.
In each generation of the Greenwood family, there’s a strong connection with trees. Family members engage in logging, maple syrup production, eco-activism, carpentry, and dendrology (the academic study of trees).
Greenwood is the second book I’ve read in the past year where the relationships between people and trees are central to the story. The first one was The Overstory by Richard Powers which I reviewed here. These are two very different books yet there are ideas that echo across them both.
More than anything, this book is about the connections that bind families together.
Trees play a role here too, at least a metaphorical one.
We often speak about our family trees and their branches in far-off locations, scattered like seedpods in the wind.
We sometimes define “family” more broadly to include people who aren’t blood relatives but who are still very important in our lives.
In Greenwood, it’s the family members who are not blood relatives who actually do a better job caring for each other.
But are families anything like trees really?
Towards the end of the book, Jake muses to herself,
“What if a family isn’t a tree at all? … What if it’s more like a forest? A collection of individuals pooling their resources through intertwined roots, sheltering one another from wind and weather and drought – just like Greenwood Island’s trees have done for centuries.” [p. 497]
The narrative structure of nested generational stories adds some suspense to the book, but it’s also a bit more confusing than a conventional linear storyline.
And while the near future cli-fi elements of Jake’s sections of the novel are interesting, I think they could have been set in the present day without much change to the book.
Both these things made me feel like Christie might have been experimenting with the form of this novel.
I will say there are flashes of brilliant writing throughout the book, such as this description of a prison:
“While outside the prison aspen leaves tremble in the sun and bearberries hum sweetly on bushes, there is neither a plant nor a scrap of natural light in this windowless crypt. A prison is the opposite of a forest, she concludes. Designed to sink the spirits and deaden the senses, to disconnect a human being from all that is crucial to life. If there is a fate worse than incarceration, she can’t imagine it.” [p. 79]
Greenwood is a long book, filled with hardship and loss. In that sense, it’s hard to say I enjoyed the book. But there is also perseverance and commitment and caring. I think, in the end, Christie is telling us we must care for each other like the trees in the forest do.
Thanks for reading.
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Thanks to Eva @ The Paperback Princess for telling me about this book.