It’s that time of year again: Canada Reads is getting Canadian booklovers all jazzed up about one of the most popular readers’ choice competitions in the country, and it’s the perfect opportunity to get to those backlist books that may have fallen off your radar. Greenwood by Michael Christie is one of five books competing this year, which is a choice I was delighted by, as I’ve had this book hanging around for over four years now, and I finally had a reason to dig it out and complete it. I was shocked at how much I loved it, despite it being just shy of 500 pages. I can excuse longer page counts when the author holds my interest, and this novel most certainly does.
It’s 2038, and Jacinda Greenwood is living and working on an exclusive island off the coast of British Columbia, acting as a tour guide within one of the last old-growth forests remaining on earth. Then we move back in time to 2008 where we meet Jacinda’s father Liam, a recovering addict and carpenter who builds with wood he admires, creating gorgeous counters, floors, ceiling beams and furniture for the rich. Then we move back to 1974 where we meet Liam as a little boy, and his mother Willow, a woman hell-bent on stopping de-forestation. Driving around in her Westfalia van with Liam tumbling around in the back, she pours bags of sugar in the gas tanks of construction vehicles at night, gleefully halting their progress one site at a time. We learn that Willow has given away a massive fortune, inherited from her father Harris Greenwood, who built up an incredibly successful timber empire, cutting trees down all across Canada. The majority of the book takes place in 1934 and 1908 where we meet Harris and his brother Everett, growing up together on a patch of forest in Eastern Canada, torn apart by WWI and the blindness that afflicts Harris as he grows into adulthood. Everett struggles after his return from combat, tramping across the country in search of respite, but instead finding an adventure he never dreamed possible.
Better described as a literary depiction of a family tree, the first page of this novel features a cross-section of a tree with certain rings marked as years, highlighting the pivotal time periods for the Greenwood family. Through this framing technique, Christie introduces us to a family and their shared love of trees, all bound up in a plot-driven novel that bounces in-between time periods, but remains easy-to-follow despite the unique time structure. The exact years and the order in which we travel to them are secondary to the characters and their personal journeys. Some we hear from for only a page or two, while others make up the majority of dialogue and thought, yet each plays a pivotal role in the Greenwood life span.
Everything in this book revolves around trees; its plot and structure, its characters, even its metaphors. The trees withstand all the turmoil surrounding them, and when they live through droughts, floods, storms, the torment these natural disasters inflict are visible in their tree rings only after they are cut down. The characters’ lives are full of suffering, each struggling with challenges that reflect the time period they sit within; the depression, the dust storms, climate change, the opioid epidemic. At one point, a character even dies against a tree, clinging to it as the life bleeds out of her. This book is rife with symbolism, and although some readers may roll their eyes at it, I loved it! The natural world will always be a classroom, and the trees in this story are continually teaching those around them.
To top off an already engaging plot with colorful characters is a style of writing that doesn’t distract, but enhance the bones of a successful story. This doesn’t have spoilers in it, so I’ll leave you with a quote from the very end of the book:
“As soon as I’m ready, we’re going to leave this place. Together. If they attempt to stop us, we will flee into the forest. It will be a long walk from here into town. But I am strong & you give me courage & a forest has always been the best place for a person to escape into.”-p. 490 of ARC of Greenwood by Michael Christie