REVIEW: All Over Creation
Novel lampoons players in GMO debate

Reviewed by Dan Sullivan

Details:

All Over Creation

Ruth Ozeki, Viking, 2003;
ISBN 0-670-03091-0; 417pp; U.S. $24.95

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October 14, 2004: All Over Creation is Ruth Ozeki’s second novel, and the second to take aim at a U.S. industrial food system run amok. While the sins of the beef industry were just one of several themes running through her first effort, My Year of Meats, Ozeki keeps a steady bead on the transgressions of transgenic crop science in All Over Creation.

Like Ozeki, and the character of her first novel, All Over Creation’s main character is Japanese-American. Switching between first and third person, the novel tracks the life of Yumi Fuller, from infant resting in the hulking hands of her Idaho conventional potato farmer father to prodigal daughter reluctantly returning—following a 25 year absence—to conservative Liberty Falls to care for her ailing parents.

Despite the publisher’s assurance that “…any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locals is entirely coincidental,” the arch-evil biotech company Cynaco peddling its NuLife pesticide-enhanced potatoes to Idaho farmers bears strong resemblance to goings on—not to mention key players and products—in industrial agriculture. (Terminator plant sterilization technology and Michael Pollan’s brilliant New York Times treatise “Playing God in the Garden” are also referenced.)

Character development is superb, even if the plot coincidences—like those espoused in the publisher’s notes—are a bit suspect.

Eliot Rhodes, Liberty Falls’ hippie history teacher (he needed a draft deferment) first deflowers and impregnates 14-year-old Yumi, then leaves her out on the streets to endure the first harsh year of a quarter-century rift with the father she once idolized. If that’s not enough to make readers detest Rhodes, fate sends him unwillingly back to Liberty Falls as Cynaco’s shallow spinmeister—unwilling, that is, until he finds out Yumi is also back in town.

Enter the Seeds of Resistance, a band of young environmental activists—sort of a cross between the Scooby-Doo gang and Earth First!—who travel around in a veggie-oil powered Winnebago staging supermarket guerilla theatre and wreaking havoc on anything GMO.

In the interim between Yumi’s departure from Liberty Falls and her return, her father, Lloyd Fuller, has retired from conventional potato farming and taken a keen interest in his wife Momoko’s small heirloom seed business with evangelical fervor.

“I used to farm potatoes, and I have witnessed firsthand the demise of the American family farm,” Fuller writes to his customers. “I have seen how large corporations hold the American farmer in thrall, prisoners to their chemical tyranny and their buyouts of politicians and judges.” (Amen, Mr. Fuller.)

It’s sentiments like these, and particularly Lloyd Fuller’s disdain for genetic engineering—he’s got special distain in his ailing ticker for Terminator technology—that put the Seeds of Resistance on a course toward Liberty Falls and their chosen guru. They’re bound to clash with Lloyd’s neighbor Will Quinn—husband to Yumi’s childhood chum Cass—who has just planted three experimental acres of NuLifes.

Dragging to town three kids from her Hawaiian hideaway—none of whom share the same father—Yumi Fuller isn’t exactly Florence Nightingale. She’s not ready for the responsibility of caretaker—and is not quick to take any blame for the fractured relationship with her parents as place gives way to memories—so she welcomes the Seeds of Resistance when they show up in the Fuller driveway and offer to help with nursing her parents and with the seed business.

Just when the reader begins to think that Yumi could not be any more irresponsible and that Eliot Rhodes couldn’t be any more of a scumbag, the two “discover” each other once again and begin a sordid series of rendezvous in his hotel room that leave the barren Cass holding the baby and Yumi’s 14-year-old son Phoenix fuming.

All comes to a head when the Seeds hold a teach-in at the Fuller farm—and a civil disobedience action next door—that brings down the heat in more ways than one. But like the mythical bird from which Yumi borrows her sons name, healing and resolution rise from the ashes of tragedy—along with a good dose of karma for the bad guy.

The fact that Ruth Ozeki has largely done her homework—with rare exception; she erroneously places the University of Oregon in Portland—makes her work an entertaining read for folks who watch the real story play out in supermarkets and across the American landscape (though, of course, the parallels are only coincidence).

With her second book, Ozeki has firmly established herself in the genre of food-politics fiction (Barbara Kingsolver gives the effort exuberant endorsement in the jacket-cover notes). All Over Creation offers an entertaining primer for the uninitiated and an abundance of inspiration for life’s many challenges to any reader. (Anybody know where to get a used diesel-powered Winnebago?)

Dan Sullivan is senior editor at The New Farm.