WINNER OF THE ARTHUR ELLIS AWARD
LONGLISTED FOR THE 2019 SCOTIABANK GILLER PRIZE
A CBC BOOKS "BEST CANADIAN FICTION" TITLE OF THE YEAR
From the award-winning author of If I Fall, If I Die comes a propulsive, multigenerational family story, in which the unexpected legacies of a remote island off the coast of British Columbia will link the fates of five people over a hundred years. Cloud Atlas meets The Overstory in this ingenious nested-ring epic set against the devastation of the natural world.
They come for the trees. It's 2038 and Jacinda (Jake) Greenwood is a storyteller and a liar, an overqualified tour guide babysitting ultra-rich-eco-tourists in one of the world's last remaining forests. It's 2008 and Liam Greenwood is a carpenter, sprawled on his back after a workplace fall and facing the possibility of his own death. It's 1974 and Willow Greenwood is just out of jail for one of her environmental protests: attempts at atonement for the sins of her father's once vast and rapacious timber empire. It's 1934 and Everett Greenwood is a Depression-era drifter who saves an abandoned infant, only to find himself tangled up in the web of a crime, secrets, and betrayal that will cling to his family for decades. And throughout, there are trees: a steady, silent pulse thrumming beneath Christie's effortless sentences, working as a guiding metaphor for withering, weathering, and survival.
Transporting, beautifully written, and brilliantly structured like the nested growth rings of a tree, Greenwood reveals the knot of lies, omissions, and half-truths that exists at the root of every family's origin story. It is a magnificent novel of greed, sacrifice, love, and the ties that bind--and the hopeful, impossible task of growing toward the light.
About the author
MICHAEL CHRISTIE received his MFA in creative writing at the University of British Columbia. Prior to this, he worked in a homeless shelter on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and provided outreach to the severely mentally ill. A former professional skateboarder, he is a senior writer for Color Magazine, an award-winning publication that celebrates skateboarding culture. Michael Christie lives in Thunder Bay, and is working on his next book, a novel.
- Long-listed, Scotiabank Giller Prize
Excerpt: Greenwood: A Novel (by (author) Michael Christie)
They come for the trees.
To smell their needles. To caress their bark. To be regenerated in the humbling loom of their shadows. To stand mutely in their leafy churches and pray to their thousand-year-old souls.
From the world’s dust-choked cities they venture to this exclusive arboreal resort—a remote forested island off the Pacific Rim of British Columbia—to be transformed, renewed, and reconnected. To be reminded that the Earth’s once-thundering green heart has not flatlined, that the soul of all living things has not come to dust and that it isn’t too late and that all is not lost. They come here to the Greenwood Arboreal Cathedral to ingest this outrageous lie, and it’s Jake Greenwood’s job as Forest Guide to spoon-feed it to them.
God’s Middle Finger
As first light trickles through the branches, Jake greets this morning’s group of Pilgrims at the trailhead. Today, she’ll lead them out among the sky-high spires of Douglas fir and Western red cedar, between granite outcrops plush with electric green moss, to the old-growth trees, where epiphany awaits. Given the forecasted rain, the dozen Pilgrims are all swaddled in complimentary Leafskin, the shimmery yet breathable new fabric that’s replaced Gore-Tex, nano-engineered to mimic the way leaves bead and repel water. Though the Cathedral has issued Jake her own Leafskin jacket, she seldom wears it for fear of damaging company property; she’s already deep enough in debt without having to worry about a costly replacement. Yet trudging through the drizzling rain that begins just after they set out on the trail, Jake wishes she’d made an exception today.
Despite the liter of ink-black coffee she gulped before work this morning, Jake’s hungover brain is taffy-like, and it throbs in painful synchronization with every step she takes. Though she’s woefully unprepared for public speaking, once they reach the first glades of old-growth she begins her usual introduction.
“Welcome to the beating heart of the Greenwood Arboreal Cathedral,” she says in a loud, theatrical voice. “You’re standing on fifty-seven square kilometers of one of the last remaining old-growth forests on Earth.” Immediately, the Pilgrims brandish their phones and commence to feverishly thumb their screens. Jake never knows whether they’re fact-checking her statements, posting breathless exclamations of wonder, or doing something entirely unrelated to the tour.
“These trees act like huge air filters,” she carries on. “Their needles suck up dust, hydrocarbons, and other toxic particles, and breathe out pure oxygen, rich with phytoncides, the chemicals that have been found to drop our blood pressure and slow our heart rates. Just one of these mature firs can generate the daily oxygen required by four adult humans.” On cue, the Pilgrims begin to video themselves taking deep breaths through their noses.
While Jake is free to mention the Earth’s rampant dust storms in the abstract, it’s Cathedral policy never to speak of their cause: the Great Withering—the wave of fungal blights and insect infestations that rolled over the world’s forests ten years ago, decimating hectare after hectare. The Pilgrims have come to relax and forget about the Withering, and it’s her job (and jobs, she’s aware, are currently in short supply) to ensure they do.
Following her introduction, she coaxes the Pilgrims a few miles west, into a grove of proper old-growth giants, whose trunks bulge wider than mid-sized cars. These are trees of such immensity and grandeur they seem unreal, like film props or monuments. In the presence of such giants, the Pilgrims assume hushed, reverent tones. Official Holtcorp policy is to refer to the forest as the Cathedral and its guests as Pilgrims; Knut, Greenwood Island’s most senior Forest Guide and Jake’s closest friend, claims that this is because the forest was the first (and now, perhaps, the last) church. Back when air travel didn’t command a year’s salary, Jake once visited Rome on a learning exchange and saw only curving limbs and ropy trunks in its columns and porticoes. The leafy dome of the mosque; the upward-soaring spires of the abbey; the ribbed vault of the cathedral—which faith’s sacred structures weren’t designed with trees as inspiration?
Now some of the Pilgrims actually begin to embrace the bark for long durations without irony or embarrassment. In their information packages, the Pilgrims are instructed not to approach the trees too closely, as their weight compacts the soil around the trunks and causes the roots to soak up less water. But Jake holds her tongue and watches the Pilgrims commune, photograph, and huff the chlorophyll-scrubbed air with a reverence that is part performance, part genuine appreciation, though it’s difficult for her to estimate in which proportions. Soon they barrage her with impossibly technical questions: “So how much would a thing like this weigh?” asks a short man with a Midwestern accent. “This reminds me of being a girl,” a fifty-something investment banker declares, caressing a moss-wrapped cedar.
While most of the Pilgrims seem to be tuning in to the Green magnificence, a few appear lost, underwhelmed. Jake watches the short Midwestern man place his palm against a Douglas fir’s bark, gaze up into the canopy, and attempt to feel awed. But she can sense his disappointment. Soon he and the others retreat back into their phones for the relief of distraction. This is to be expected. Even though they’ve paid the Cathedral’s hefty fees and endured the indignities of post-Withering travel, there are always a few who can’t escape the burden of how relaxed they’re supposed to be at this moment, and how dearly it’s costing them to fail.
The Pilgrims are easily mocked, but Jake also pities them. Hasn’t she remained here on Greenwood Island for the same purpose? To glean something rare and sustaining from its trees, to breathe their clean air and feel less hopeless among them? On the Mainland, the Pilgrims live in opulent, climate-controlled towers that protect them from rib retch—the new strain of tuberculosis endemic to the world’s dust-choked slums, named after the cough that snaps ribs like kindling, especially in children—yet they still arrive at the Cathedral seeking something ineffable that’s missing from their lives. They’ve read that article about the health benefits of shinrin-yoku, the Japanese term for “forest bathing.” They’ve listened to that podcast about how just a few hours spent among trees triples your creativity. So they’re here to be healed, however temporarily, and if Jake weren’t mired in student debt and hadn’t embarked on such a pitifully unmarketable career as botany, she’d gladly be one of them.
When Jake notices a patrol of Rangers creeping through some cedars in the distance, she carefully herds the Pilgrims to the picnic area for their prepared lunches, dubbed “Upscale Logging Camp” by the resort’s Michelin-starred chef. Today, it’s artisanal hot dogs with chanterelle ketchup and organic s’mores. While watching them photograph their food, Jake’s eye snags on a particular Pilgrim sitting apart from the group, wearing large sunglasses and an unfashionable cap pulled low. He’s wealthy, some Holtcorp executive or actor no doubt, though Jake would be the last person to know. Because she can’t afford a screen in her staff cabin—her student loan interest payments don’t leave her enough for Internet access—she seldom recognizes the resort’s famous visitors. Still, the true celebrities can be identified by that glittery aura they exude, the sense that they’ve forged a deeper connection to the world than regular people like her.
After lunch Jake escorts the Pilgrims to the tour’s grand finale, the largest stand on Greenwood Island, where she hits them with a poetic bit she wrote and memorized years back: “Many of the Cathedral’s trees are over twelve hundred years old. That’s older than our families, older than most of our names. Older than the current forms of our governments, even older than some of our myths and ideologies.
“Like this one,” she says, patting the foot-thick bark of the island’s tallest Douglas fir, a breathtaking tree that she and Knut have secretly named “God’s Middle Finger.” “This two-hundred-and-thirty-foot titan was already a hundred and fifty feet tall when Shakespeare sat down and dipped his quill to begin writing Hamlet.” She pauses to watch a stoic solemnity grip the group. She’s laying it on thick, but her hangover has cleared and she’s finally found her rhetorical groove. And when she gets going, she wants nothing less than to wow the Pilgrims with the wonders of all creation. “Each year of its life, this tree has expanded its bark and built a new ring of cambium to encase the ring of growth that came the year before it. That’s twelve hundred layers of heartwood, enough to thrust the tree’s needled crown into the clouds.”
Winner of the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Crime Novel
Shortlisted for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize
Shortlisted for the Roderick Haig-Brown Regional Prize
Longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize
"Superb. . . . There are plenty of visionary moments laced into his shape-shifting narrative. . . . Greenwood penetrates to the core of things." —New York Times Book Review
"A deeply compelling novel of family and memory. . . . Greenwood is a towering, profound novel about the things that endure even as the world seems to be moving on." —BookPage
"A remarkable achievement." —Carol Off, As It Happens
"Christie skillfully teases out the details in a page-turner of a saga that complements sylvan books such as Sometimes a Great Nation and The Overstory. . . . Beguilingly structured, elegantly written: eco-apocalyptic but with hope that somehow we'll make it." —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"A dystopian, historical, speculative, multigenerational family saga, this marvellous, generous book is best enjoyed in a forest." —Sharon Bala, author of The Boat People
"[An] eerily real-feeling future." —Globe and Mail
"Rich with evocative descriptions of West Coast wilderness and anchored by a deep visceral bond to the trees that sustain us all, Greenwood is a literary page-turner that manages to be both nostalgic and modern, personal and political, intimately human and big-picture historical. In an era of so much uncertainty, it is comforting to see novelists begin to work through the biggest issue of our age. And, in this case, convert our collective suffering into brilliant, beauty-filled art." —Toronto Star
"[S]tructured like the growth rings of a tree, spanning generation. . . . [Greenwood] looks at families, love and secrets against the backdrop of the 'magic' of trees." —CBC News
“Greenwood is a sprawling and ambitious novel of industrial greed, climate catastrophe, familial bonds and a little bit of hope.”—Keith Cadieux, Winnipeg Free Press
“Whatever 2038 is really like when it arrives, Canadians and others will still be reading Greenwood for its high energy, its memorable characters, and its anguished love for the forests.”—Crawford Kilian, The Tyee
"Greenwood is brilliant. Michael Christie shows a cross section of one family's history, revealing their dark secrets, loves, losses, and the mark of an accident still visible four generations later. Year by year, page by page, the layers of this intricate and elegant novel build into an epic story that is completely absorbing. I had to cancel everything for this book because I couldn't stop reading." —Claire Cameron, author of The Last Neanderthal
"This book is why we read books. Why we need books. Wildly inventive, structurally elegant, deeply felt, and so very wise. Greenwood is Michael Christie's best work ever, and that's saying something." —Alexander MacLeod, author of Light Lifting
“Ingeniously structured and with prose as smooth as beech bark, Michael Christie’s Greenwood is as compulsive as it is profound. A sweeping intergenerational saga that explores trees and their roots, from the precious evergreens that become commodities in the entertainment business of the future, to the intricately tangled trees of family—all of it is dazzlingly delivered in a framework inspired by the actual growth rings of a tree. Every one of Greenwood’s characters burrowed their way into my heart. Beguilingly brilliant, timely, and utterly engrossing, Greenwood is one of my favourite reads in recent memory.” —Kira Jane Buxton, author of Hollow Kingdom
“At once hypnotic and raging, dangerously real and brimming with hope, Greenwood is that most necessary epic that binds our human frailties to our planet's possibilities. Michael Christie tenderly rakes the past and paints a future without flinching. I read this book with my heart in my throat, in my hands, in my gut; I read this book heart-full.” —Katy Simpson Smith, author of The Story of Land and Sea
"Greenwood is a family story, fractured and often contradictory (as the best family stories usually are). . . . bring[ing] together the intimate and the sweeping, the human world and the natural, the past and the future." —Quill & Quire
"Astonishing. . . . What makes Greenwood an essential climate-change novel is that, rather than obsessing over a single, final apocalypse to come, it attempts something much harder and more ambitious: to transcend altogether the tropes of victim and antagonist. . . . And to instead present humanity and nature as deeply, ultimately, endlessly interconnected. . . . Greenwood offers a rare sentiment in the climate emergency: hope." —Damian Tarnopolsky, The Walrus