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
distain for genetic engineering—he’s got special disdain
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
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
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.