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The Overstory: “You have been spared from death to do a most important thing”

I recently read and enjoyed The Overstory, by Richard Powers. I often miss connections in books & movies that are obvious to others; here I wrestle with one particular line near the end that I noticed is a callback to an earlier chapter.

This post contains spoilers.  If you haven’t read the book, you’re better off reading it than this post.

After coming back to life, Olivia hears this line from the voices: “You have been spared from death to do a most important thing.” In Adam’s final chapter, he is sent to a federal prison in upstate New York. It closes with this paragraph:

And in that moment, it starts up, the quiet torture worse than anything the state can inflict on Adam. A small voice so real it might come from the bunk above him whispers the start of a story that will plague him for longer than his imprisonment: You have been spared from death to do a most important thing.

Are the trees now speaking to him? What connection is the author making by echoing the earlier line heard by Olivia?

Olivia’s being “spared from death” was obvious: she revived after her electrocution. Was Adam spared from death in a similar way? I couldn’t remember him having a close call. I don’t think he narrowly dodged a death sentence. And what is his “most important thing” to do – what might he do from his confinement?

My best interpretation was that this statement in fact applies to all humans. In the novel’s sense of life being a series of experiments, of speculations, of branching, all living beings have been spared death. And all people have a most important thing to do: bring humanity back into the web of life.  Perhaps Adam will continue the fight in prison.  We are told that other inmates “will beat him senseless many times” for siding with the enemies of human progress – that might mean new acts, not just his past deeds.

How can the story plague him for “longer than his imprisonment,” when he has 140 years to serve?  I have nothing here except that maybe it’s related to the parallel-universes aspect I struggled with throughout the book, here alluded to as the “many [different] futures [Adam] will have to live though”.

As to Adam hearing the voice for the first time only at the end of his journey, perhaps it has been there all along.  The trees are always talking.  But few hear.  First Olivia, and later Adam.

This explanation doesn’t entirely satisfy me. I suspect I’m missing something and there’s a better interpretation for this phrase reappearing.  Comment or drop me a line if you see it!

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