Greenwood by Michael Christie
This family saga is like the concentric rings of a tree, with each generation of Greenwoods growing upon the layers of the previous one.The story starts at the outermost layer with Jacinda “Jake” Greenwood, a young woman employed as a tour guide at a tree sanctuary off the coast of British Columbia.
Frighteningly, it is set in the not-too-distant future of 2038 where disease, the Great Withering, and exploitation have reduced the forests of the world to small protected pockets visited by wealthy tourists while the rest of the world suffers in a world of heat and dust. Jake is poorly paid and trapped by student debt but is at least physically better off than out in the arid world where “rib-retch” from dust and poverty make survival a struggle for most. Jake is made aware that as a possible descendant of the original owner of the island she has a stake in its ownership at the same time as she discovers disease on some of the island’s tallest and oldest trees.
The story loops back in time over a hundred years to tell of a baby fathered and claimed by a rich timber owner. The mother runs away with her baby but dies in the woods and the tiny infant is rescued from the snow by Everett, an itinerant man who evades searchers and brings the child up himself in the backwoods and later in a rural ranch. This man was one of two boys who became the Greenwood brothers after a train crash killed their families and left them to fend for themselves. Everitt’s brother Harris worked his way to wealth, buying forests and mining timber despite the onset of blindness. The child, Willow, grows to inherit this wealth but rejects it all to become an activist, sabotaging logging operations to protect the trees. Later, her son settles for a quieter life as a carpenter making beautiful objects from timber and his daughter is Jake.
Greenwood works as a narrative. The reader’s interest is sustained from the quasi-legendary tale of the brothers Greenwood’s origins and the excitement of the chase as Everett is pursued to the end as the tale is bookended by concern for Jake, isolated and living on the brink of an uncertain future in an uncertain world. Characters such as the drug-addicted Lomax, cranky Mrs Craig and the mellifluous Feeney have their own stories which add to the richness of the saga’s texture.
Trees are pervasive in this book, integral to the lives of each generation of Greenwoods. Brothers Everett and Harris support themselves as orphaned youths by selling wood. One becomes a timber magnate exploiting forests for profit; the other finds refuge living simply in the woods appreciating the environment that sustains forests. The child Willow grows up to take a savage satisfaction in fighting this very exploitation but her son Liam finds peace in being alone and working with wood. Jake grows up apart from her father but her fascination with trees leads her to complete a degree in dendrology, the study of trees.
There are so many ways the metaphor of the tree as family can be read into this saga. The tree as also clearly a symbol of environmental issues raised here, of the future and the world. Each generation faces its own challenges in the context of the times whether World War One, Depression, the hippie protests of the seventies or in Jake’s case a disintegrating environment of the future. Each layer of a tree grows on the core of previous layers, each ring shows its own stresses and strains but hopefully the tree keeps growing towards the future, although shadowed by the threat of saw or disease.
There are a multitude of ways of viewing this story, rich with ideas and connections that makes this a prime read for book club discussions. Greenwood has a place as a text that makes humans think about our history, our place in the world and our relationship with our environment. And it’s a great story!
Reviewer: Clare Lyon