I have not been able to sit still and read for a long time. With the pandemic, my mind can rarely engage with a book for any sort of marathon session. Michael Christie has figured out the antidote, at least for me, with his tightly packed, well-plotted and bracing book about four generations of the Greenwood family. His narrative inspired me to reflect on my own long family history in this country, to consider the things I do and don’t know for certain about my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, and to question what I want for any future branches I might add to my family tree.
We begin in 2038, with Jake Greenwood, who is living on the remote island of Greenwood, off the coast of BC, in a secluded ecotourist destination known as the Cathedral. The world’s trees have died out in a mass extinction known as The Withering, and the former academic and dendrologist is now trying to eek out a living as a tour guide to fend off debt-collectors and avoid living on the dust-ravaged mainland. Slowly, she learns that her last name, Greenwood is not a coincidence, and she is in fact closely and intimately tied to the island.
The book unfolds like the rings of a tree, sending us from the outer bark of the family with Jake’s experiences in the near future, and then back in time to her father Liam, where he’s working as a fine carpenter battling an opioid addiction in 2008. Still further back, we meet Willow (Jake’s grandmother) as she travels to the prairies to pick-up her uncle from jail in 1974. Then even back to the thirties, to brothers Everett and Harris Greenwood, and we follow Everett’s epic journey across Canada to save a baby while Harris lives out life as a lumber industrialist destroying the old-growth forests of the west coast. Eventually, we go back even further, to the nineteen-tens, as we learn how Everett and Harris were found as orphans in a train wreck near the city of Kingston.
As the past deepens, so does the future story of each Greenwood. Once Everett and Harris’ journey is explained, we head back into the future, subsequentially revisiting 1974, 2008 and then 2038 to see how their descendants fair with the legacy of their shared inheritance. Willow lives to rebel against her wealth as the daughter of an industrialist; Liam finds stability and turns the very trees his mother devotes her life to protecting into products and art as a carpenter; Jake struggles to find a sense of belonging after all her intellectual pursuits are destroyed by forces beyond her control. Each family member must reckon with how the environment has shaped their lives, how they’ve found purpose, what it means to have wealth and experience loss, and wonder if the draw towards working with lumber is some sort of genetic predisposition or just a natural part of being human.
I managed to finish this in two sessions of about 5 hours each, and enjoyed every second of it. Because I wanted to know about Jake’s mystery, I was motivated to learn about Liam, Willow, Everett and Harris too. Once I knew about them, jumping forward in time made me miss the long-gone family members as they dropped out of existence. Poignant, reflective, and engaging, this book was everything I didn’t know I was looking for.