Greenwood by Michael Christie
Like the rings of a mighty tree, Michael Christie’s recent novel Greenwood spans generations, telling the story of a family whose lives are inextricably connected with trees and who are often at odds with each other—among them a lumber tycoon father, his eco-activist daughter, and her carpenter son.
It’s 2038, and Jacinda “Jake” Greenwood, is an underpaid, overqualified tour guide at the Greenwood Arboreal Cathedral located on an island northwest of Vancouver. Wealthy eco-tourists flock here to marvel in the shadows of stately old growth trees in this last remaining old growth forest. The Great Withering, caused by fungal blights and insect infestations, has killed off most trees on the planet, and the resulting dust storms have caused widespread sickness in the form of a new strain of tuberculosis (known as “rib retch”).
Christie’s idea for the Great Withering came from the reality of Western Red Cedar trees near his home on Galiano Island browning or dying, presumably due to climate-change-induced drought stress.
Mirroring the rings of a tree, Greenwood works backward through the generations to 1908, where the mysteries of this family begin, and then outward again, returning to 2038.
The story’s structure came from an epiphany Christie had after chopping down a small tree on his property, tracing the narrative of the tree’s life across the stump from outer to inner and back again.
Christie professes a love for “family tree” stories, but was troubled by the idea that family trees leave out so many people who are critical pieces of the family story but not part of the direct lineage. He set out to write a multigenerational novel whose focus is on “found” families rather than those based on bloodlines; a story that questions and interrogates what a family really means. How the members of the Greenwood family come to be related offers a sense of mystery and surprise throughout the novel, portraying connections that are complex, beautiful, and full of dark secrets.
Toward the end of the book, Jake ruminates: “What if a family isn’t a tree at all? What it it’s more like a forest? A collection of individuals pooling their resources through intertwined roots, sheltering one another from wind and weather are drought.”
Christie embraces this interdependence in his storytelling, finding hope in the connections that bind has characters to each other—and to the planet. We are all just human, no heroes or villains; flawed, but doing our best, with a little help from those who care for us.
Greenwood is a page-turner that incorporates history and mystery, family secrets and forbidden love, a cross-country chase and elements of eco-apocalyptic fiction.
If you enjoyed The Overstory by Richard Powers, Barkskins by Annie Proulx, or Deep River by Karl Marlantes, you owe it to yourself to read this. Available from your library in eBook or eAudiobook format, or in hardcover from your local bookseller.
Christie’s planned March appearance on the Chuckanut Radio Hour had to be cancelled, but I hope to see him visit Whatcom County to talk about Greenwood someday soon.
Lisa Gresham is the Collection Services Manager at the Whatcom County Library System, https://www.wcls.org
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, May 6, 2020.)