Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Michael Christie began his career as an author in promising fashion, being nominated for awards left and right. In his second published novel, Greenwood, he attempts to make full use of his talents to tell the complicated story of a family across multiple generations. Taking us on a trip through time from 1908 to 2038, we meet the four pivotal members who through their actions, both purposeful and unwitting, dictated their family’s history.
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Michael Christie Introduces the Eternal Greenwoods
Just like with regular history, our knowledge and vision of our own family’s past tends to be very murky, fragmented, and of course, generally omits the mistakes we’d like to see forgotten. Whatever missteps our predecessors might have made, they too contributed to our families’ stories, the consequences often running much deeper than they had anticipated.
We could certainly find a whole treasure trove of forgotten secrets were we to explore our ancestor’s fates, and it’s precisely what we get to do with the Greenwood family, in Michael Christie‘s latest work, a historical fiction and family saga novel aptly-titled Greenwood.
The story takes us across four different generations of the family, beginning in the year 2038 and introducing us to Jacinda Greenwood (who goes by Jake), a trained botanist, a storyteller, a liar, and overpaid tour guide for rich eco-tourists. She was the first to discover the “Great Withering” bound to kill off most of the world’s trees.
From there on out, the story moves backwards in time, acquainting us with the carpenter Liam Greenwood in 2008, the environmental protester Willow Greenwood in 1974, and the depression-era drifter Everett Greenwood all the way back in 1934. And no matter where they might be in time and space, it seems the trees are following the Greenwoods no matter where they go.
Thus, we take the time to learn about each pivotal family member’s life, the people who surrounded them, their ambitions, and perhaps most importantly, how they were affected by their ancestors and how their own actions would affect their descendants. In the end, we try to find an answer to the overtly-simple but internally-complicated question: just who are the Greenwoods?
The Human Entanglement in Greenwood
Though we all have our own predilections for the types of mysteries which tickle our fancy, I personally find shadowed family histories to be one of the more interesting kinds. Inevitably, they run across multiple time periods and connect events whose participants could never have anticipated their importance. It’s like putting a puzzle of reality together, and in Greenwood it’s a complex and captivating one.
First beginning at the year 2038 to see where the current members of the family ended up, we quickly end up back all the way in 1908 with brief descriptions of the important family members, and begin the adventure to see the logical chain of events which led up to that point.
I found it was quite a good choice on Christie‘s part to give us the short introductions to the central players throughout different time periods, which helped pique my curiosity about not only the family’s overall trajectory, but also the inner worlds of the characters.
Though there are a couple of elements which seem to be brought up and subsequently lost forever, on the whole I think it’s fair to say the author did close to a perfect job on weaving all the rather different story lines together. It certainly isn’t an easy task to write a solid and coherent plot spanning one hundred and thirty years with many different characters, but I think Christie accomplished this here.
Additionally, the characters themselves all carry a palpable amount of depth to them, to the point where I couldn’t help but hold my judgment about the people I didn’t like at first sight, suspecting there might be a lot more to their stories. To my great pleasure, this turned out to be correct in pretty much every case.
The Wider World Beyond the People
While the novel is certainly about unravelling a family’s history for the benefit of the reader, this only makes up the core of the experience… a core around which the author builds in numerous directions, the first one being environmental preservation.
There is quite a strong message in this book about the tremendous importance of preserving our environment, and how so far we’ve been catastrophically failing in this department. Thankfully, Christie doesn’t beat us over the head with simple points we know and have heard time and time again. Instead, he depicts a realistic potential future should we fail completely.
There aren’t any normal lives, son. That’s the lie that hurts us most.― Michael Christie, Greenwood
As a matter of fact, trees play a very strong role in the entirety of the novel, always appearing in the background in some capacity, even as the events take us to other places in Canada. The author’s reverence for their ability to weather almost any storm, survive, and even grow again from a sapling if need be; they are a testament to the Earth’s and the Greenwoods’ resilience alike.
Christie also touches on various other topics of the great wide world, including politics, wealth, big business corruption, greed, estrangement, and sacrifice, acquainting the Greenwood family members with all Earthly joys and sadness. Come to think of it, there is a bit more of the latter than the former in this story, so do keep in mind it’s far from being all sunshine and rainbows.
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In the end, it feels like the author is trying his hardest to answer the question as to who the Greenwoods really are, but it’s up to us, the readers, to formulate our own conclusions on the matter. I haven’t come across too many books actually capable of keeping me thinking and engaged for a good while after I’ve finished them, so Greenwood definitely deserves a commendation in this respect.
The Final Verdict
Greenwood by Michael Christie is a profound work of historical fiction focusing on both a family’s complex history as well as the environmental repercussions of the choices we make as a civilization. The prose is excellent and I found the structure made it very easy to become invested in the characters and the secrets they hold.
If you enjoy family saga stories, historical fiction novels and are looking for a story with a good amount of depth as well as a strong connection to our real world, then I believe this would be a perfect novel for you.
Michael Christie is a Canadian writer from Ontario whose first published work for writing, the story collection titled The Beggar’s Garden, was nominated for both the 2011 Scotiabank Giller and Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction prizes, in addition to winning the 2011 City of Vancouver Book Award.
His first novel, If I Fall, If I Die was published four years later in 2015, and his second novel, Greenwood was published in 2019 and won the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novel the following year.