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All Over Creation opens wider with every plot twist as it moves from tenderness to comedy to sobering truth and the whole world in the eye of one family's storm. This is Edward Abbey's The Monkey Wrench Gang updated by thirty years, with modern environmental challenges on the map and women in the front seat, driving the story. Hooray, Ruth Ozeki rides again.—author of The Poisonwood Bible
in the beginning
It starts with the earth. How can it not? Imagine the planet like a split peach, whose pit forms the core, whose flesh its mantle, and whose fuzzy skin its crust-no, that doesn't do justice to the crust, which is, after all, where all of life takes place. The earth's crust must be more like the rind of the orange, thicker and more durable, quite unlike the thin skin of a bruisable peach. Or is it? Funny, how you never think to wonder.
On one small section of that crust-small, that is, by global or geologic measure-in Power County, Idaho, where the mighty Snake River carved out its valley and where volcanic ash enriched the soil with minerals vital to its tilth, there stretched a vast tract of land known as Fuller Farms.
Vast, by human scale. Vast, relative to other farmers' holdings in the region, like the Quinns' place down the road. And as for the description, "land belonging," well that's a condition measured in human time, too. But for one quick blip in the 5 billion years of life on this earth, that three thousand acres of potato-producing topsoil and debatably the slender cone of the planet that burned below, right down to the rigid center of its core, belonged to my father, Lloyd Fuller.
It used to be the best topsoil around. Used to be feet of it, thick, loamy. There's less of it now. But still, imagine you are a seed-of an apple, or a melon, or even the pit of a peach-spit from the lips of one of Lloyd's crossbred grandchildren, arcing through the air and falling to earth, where you are ground into the soil, under a heel, to rest and overwinter. Months pass, and it is cold and dark. Then slowly, slowly, spring creeps in, the sun tickles the earth awake again, its warmth thaws the soil, and your coat, which has protected you from the winter frosts, now begins to crack. Oh, so tentatively you send a threadlike root to plumb the ground below, while overhead your pale shoot pushes up through the sedentary mineral elements (the silt, the sand, the clay), through the teeming community of microfauna (bacteria and fungi, the algae and the nematodes), past curious macrofauna (blind moles, furry voles, and soft, squirming earthworms). This is life in the Root Zone, nudging your tendril toward the warmth of the sunny sun sun.
And then imagine the triumphant moment when you crack the crumbly crust, poke your wan and wobbling plumule head through the surface and start to unfurl-imagine, from your low and puny perspective, how vast Lloyd Fuller's acreage must look to you now.
Of course, during most of his tenure and the decades that followed, these three thousand acres were given over primarily to the planting of potatoes, which means that you, being a random seedling, a volunteer, an accidental fruit, will most likely be uprooted. Just as you turn your face into the rays and start to respire, maybe even spread out a leaf or two and get down to the business of photosynthesizing-grrrrrip, weeded right out of there. Sayonara, baby.
That's what it felt like when I was growing up, like I was a random fruit in a field of genetically identical potatoes. Burbanks-that's what people planted. Centuries of cross-pollination, human migration, plant mutation, and a little bit of backyard luck had resulted in the pride of Idaho, the world's best baker, the Russet Burbank. From one side of the state to the other spread a glorious monoculture of these large, white, long-bodied tubers with rough, reticulated skin, high in solids content with a mealy texture when cooked and a pleasing potatoey flavor.
Honestly, I never liked potatoes much. I preferred rice, a taste I inherited from my mother, Momoko, and which, in a state of spuds, was tantamount to treason. Momoko used to make me rice balls, the size of fingerlings, to take to school in my lunch box. Lloyd called them "Tokyo tubers"-this was his idea of a joke-and when I was a little girl, I thought it was pretty funny, too. I used to look forward to lunchtime, opening my plastic Barbie box, where, nestled next to a slice of meat loaf or ham, I'd find the two little o-musubi sitting neatly side by side. They tasted faintly salty, like Momoko's small hands. If the other kids thought my lunch was queer, they didn't say much, because Lloyd Fuller had more acres, and thus more potatoes, than almost any other farmer in Power County, and I was Yummy, his only child.
No one said much either when Lloyd brought my mom home from Japan after the war, at least not to his face. Just that she was the cutest thing they had ever seen, so delicate and fragile looking, like a china doll, and how was she ever going to handle the work of running a farm? But she did. Lloyd had inherited five hundred acres, adjacent to the Quinns' place and up from where the Snake River was dammed, and he and Momoko rolled up their sleeves and went to work. People used to smile, call them Mutt and Jeff, because Lloyd was one of the tallest men in Power County and Momoko bought her work clothes in the little boys' department at Sears. You can imagine the two of them, standing in the fields, side by side, Lloyd as tall as a runner bean stalk and Momoko barely coming up to his buckle. Dressed in jeans turned up at the cuff and hanging from her shoulders by suspenders, she looked like Lloyd's son instead of his wife. The son they never had. After twelve years of trying, they had me instead-named me Yumi, only nobody in Liberty Falls could say it right. Yummy, yummy, yummy, I got love in my tummy. People said I was the apple of Lloyd's eye, the pride of his heart, until I went rotten.
As it turned out, Momoko was a born gardener, or, as Cassie Quinn's mom used to put it, "She may be yeller, but her thumb sure is green." Maybe this was meant to be a compliment, and we all took it that way. Over the years Momoko's kitchen garden grew into a vegetative wonder, and she planted varieties of fruits and flowers that no one had ever seen before in Power County. I remember her whispering to her pea vines as they curled their way up her trellises: "Gambatte ne, tané-chan!" "Be strong, my little seedling!" People drove for miles to see her Oriental ornamentals and Asian creepers. Their massy inflorescence burst into bloom in the spring and stayed that way throughout summer and deep into the fall. It was truly exotic.
Momoko must have been proud of Fuller Farms, in the early days. Lloyd surely was. In the first years of their marriage, they battled droughts and early freezes, mildews and viruses and parasites, and a host of pests that nobody could imagine why God had even bothered to create:
Seedcorn maggots, leatherjackets, and millipedes.
Thrips and leafhoppers.
False cinch bugs, blister beetles, and two-spotted spider mites.
Hornworms, wireworms, white grubs, and green peach aphids, not to mention corky ringspot...
And, most dreadful of all, the rapacious Colorado potato beetle.
All these creatures were dealt with, and thank God for science.
"Insect infestations are one of the greatest threats to the production of high-quality tubers," Lloyd used to say in the introduction to the speech that he gave every year to the Young Potato Growers of Idaho. "It is crucial to plan the applications of pesticides to harmonize with seasonable cultural practices."
"Seasonable cultural practices"-how he liked the sound of that! I remember him practicing the phrase, standing in front of the mirror in the bathroom, and when I stood there and looked at my reflection, I would practice saying it, too. Fuller Farms seemed living proof to us all that with the cooperation of God and science, and the diligent application of seasonable cultural practices, man could work in harmony with nature to create a relationship of perfect symbiotic mutualism. The first five hundred acres had grown to a holding of three thousand by the time I turned fourteen.
That was 1974, the year Nixon resigned, the year Patty Hearst was kidnapped and Evel Knievel attempted his historic leap across the Snake River Canyon on a rocket-powered motorcycle. But most important of all, it was the year of the Nine-Dollar Potato.
Consider the economics. Year after year you teeter along in a stable 'tater market, breaking even at $3.50 per hundred pounds of premium grade. When the price goes up to $4.00, you make a little, when it goes down to $3.00, you lose a little, but generally you fall in the balance and scrape by. Then, out of the blue, nature blesses you by cursing others. She sends an early frost to Maine, too much rain to California-1974 was certainly an odd year for weather, everywhere except Idaho. The failure of the nation's crops, combined with the explosive demand for french fries created by the burgeoning fast-food market, resulted in a potato shortage that sent prices rocketing into the clear blue heavens. Across the country, housewives who paid $1.29 for a ten-pound bag last year were now paying $2.39, and all of this translated into an unheard-of, unbelievable bonanza, the $9.00 per hundredweight that made my father a rich, albeit flabbergasted, farmer.
So there was Lloyd, in his prime, a Depression-born agriculturalist exercising pride in his new capitalist muscle. And who gives a flying fuck what happened after that? That's what you would have thought anyway, if you were me, on a predawn winter morning in 1974, stuffing your clothes and diary into your father's army duffel, lifting the keys to his pickup truck from the hook in the kitchen, and creeping down the porch stairs, out into the frigid night, careful not to slam the door behind you.
—from All Over Creation by Ruth Ozeki, Copyright © 2003 by Ruth Ozeki, Published by Viking Press, a member of the Penguin Group (USA) Inc., all rights reserved, reprinted with permission from the publisher.
Marking a second dazzling achievement from acclaimed, award-winning novelist Ruth Ozeki, All Over Creation brings refreshingly original characters and circumstances to the literature of Americana. The novel's backdrop, the rural town of Liberty Falls, Idaho, holds powerful, often painful memories for estranged childhood friends Yumi Fuller and Cassie Unger. But Yumi (pronounced "you-me," though most everyone says it incorrectly) left Liberty Falls as a teenage runaway while Cassie stayed behind and eventually took on the responsibility of caring for Yumi's aging parents, Lloyd and Momoko. But when Lloyd's fragile health and Momoko's Alzheimer's Disease becomes too much to handle, Cassie tracks Yumi down and, after an absence of more than twenty years, Yumi finds herself on a reluctant pilgrimage back home. There, she finds she must confront her past in order to disentangle the misunderstandings and hurt feelings harbored by both her parents and Cassie. But then Elliot Rhodes, Yumi's former high school teacher and lover, unexpectedly turns up in town, threatening the fragile peace between Yumi, her family, and her friend.
Successful potato growers working some of the nation's most prized farmland, the Fullers raised their only child tenderly, though rigidly, and were devastated when she left under the shadow of scandal. Meanwhile, Yumi immersed herself in a liberating new life on the West Coast and in Hawaii, first as a free-spirited bohemian and later as a semi-responsible realtor, literature professor, and single mother of three.
Into this prodigal daughter's tale, Ozeki introduces contemporary issues of genetic modification by way of a lively eco-activist group known as The Seeds of Resistance who have heard of the Fullers' sustainable farming methods and traveled across country to meet them. While Yumi meditates on the fallout from her rebellious adolescence, The Seeds set up camp in Liberty Falls to publicize the dangers of genetically engineered potatoes, dubbing Lloyd their guru. The Seeds have little in common with their acerbic sage other than a dedication to sustainable farming, yet they supplant the ambivalent Yumi in the sickroom and happily shoulder the responsibility of nursing Lloyd back to health.
As Yumi struggles to be recognized as a responsible adult by her parents, she must also maintain authority over her three spirited and willful children—all of whom have different fathers. And, ultimately, one of Yumi's most unnerving moments is confronting the great "what-if" embodied by Cassie, who has nurtured a stable marriage and lived within the confines of her family's acreage her whole life. Yet, in the novel's poignant parallel storyline, Cassie's desperate longing for motherhood remains unsatisfied, while children have come almost too easily to Yumi. Once best friends, they now find mutual resentment and envy creeping in to completely destroy the place they once held in the other's heart.
Exploring the unusual yet universally resonant story of one woman's homecoming, All Over Creation speaks to the necessary dilemmas of reconciling past actions to present truths as Yumi finally confronts the man who loves her and who she's spent her life avoiding—her father.
ABOUT RUTH OZEKI
Ruth Ozeki, author of the award-winning novel My Year of Meats, worked for more than a decade in television and film. Her documentary and dramatic films have been shown on PBS, at the Sundance Film Festival, and at colleges and universities across the country.
AN INTERVIEW WITH RUTH OZEKI
Your youth was spent in New Haven, Connecticut, a locale that seems to have little in common with Yumi's hometown. How did you manage to evoke such precise images of Idaho farm life? What did your upbringing have in common with Yumi's?
Well, not much. When I was growing up, in a newly developed suburb east of New Haven, trees were trees. They didn't really have names, or none that we, as children, knew. New Haven's nickname was Elm City, which, after the outset of Dutch Elm disease, was kind of sad and ironic. I guess I could identify elm trees because they were the dead ones.
Our house was in a development of identical ranch-style houses, built in the early 1950s for GIs returning from war. The developers came in with bulldozers, scraped up all the rich topsoil and hauled it away to sell, then they built the houses on the sand. When I was a child, it was a barren, lunar place. People scattered lawn seed that washed away when they watered, stuck cuttings in the ground and watched them die, cursed the developers as they bought back the precious top soil, bag by bag. My father wanted dogwoods, but only a hardy species of thorny locust survived. My mother had the choice of spending money on landscaping the property or buying a raccoon coat. She chose the coat, which at the time was fine with me. You can't cuddle up to a hedge.
How did I write Yumi's Idaho landscape? I visited and fell in love with it. I visited farms. I talked to people. And then, my father came from a farming family in the Midwest, so I'd grown up with his stories, steeped in nostalgia, of how things used to be, back in the old days, when tomatoes tasted like tomatoes, and eggshells were sturdy and didn't crumple in your hand, and bread was baked fresh every day.
You've said that in your last novel, My Year of Meats, cattle became a metaphor for a variety of concepts, including exploited women and the sexual side of human existence. In All Over Creation, to what metaphors did farming lend itself? What made the mundane potato such an ideal choice when you selected it for the Fullers' crop?
Well, farming could be a metaphor for the entire scope of human endeavor on this planet, so there's a lot to chose from. The aspect that interested me in particular was farming as an exercise of human will over the natural environment—the ways in which, particularly in this modern age, we try to play God and control nature's every move, and the myriad ways nature outfoxes us. Farming has changed so drastically over the past hundred or so years. In the past, farmers worked in cooperation with conditions that nature set, but with the advent of large-scale chemically-based factory farming operations, that relationship of cooperation started to erode, replaced by a dangerous kind of hubris.
And why potatoes? Because they are funny. They are round and jolly, and yet are a staple crop that has coevolved with human beings. Potatoes have a rich and fascinating history, and it is to the lowly tuber that we owe a great deal of our success as a species. And because potatoes represent the American diet and seemed like an inevitable choice after My Year of Meats. But mostly because spuds are cuter than rice or wheat or even ears of corn.
Your previous novel also revolved around the historic misuse of the synthetic hormone DES. All Over Creation raises questions about the issue of genetically engineered produce. Is your new novel an extension of its predecessor? Did you modify your approach to such issues when you began to write the new manuscript?
Well, an extension in the sense that I got interested in the relationship between food production and public relations during the writing of My Year of Meats, and wanted to continue the inquiry, but I think my approach is quite different in the new book. Meats was a "quest" novel, and Jane was a heroine on a mission. Creation does not have a morally unambiguous central character, and in this world, everyone is flawed. As you point out, the DES issue was largely historic, but the issues at the heart of Creation are far more complex and still evolving, so it would be reductive to propose simple answers or solutions.
All Over Creation is told through effective shifts in time and point of view. Did this make the storyline more challenging for you to manage, or did this device provide freedom? Would such shifts have been more difficult to achieve in filmmaking, your other medium?
The simple answer: Yes.
I'm tempted to leave it at that because when I think back to the juggling I've done during the past four years, trying to get these characters and their histories to mesh, it makes me feel like an idiot. Talk about hubris! I made the classic second novelist's mistake: I thought, "Well, gee. I've written a novel so I know how to do this now. The second one should be a breeze, so why not raise the bar a bit and use multiple p.o.v.'s and expanded time frames, and then cover the natural history of the potato as well? Should be easy..."
It was not.
But having said that, I'm really glad I was so naive and foolishly ambitious. I had a vision of the way the characters could mesh and intersect, and eventually they did, and I even managed to keep in some of the natural history. My editor, Carole DeSanti, is a very wise woman. I got a bit carried away with this subject, and she reined me in before I sank my story under the sheer weight of my enthusiasm. She pointed out that my readers probably wouldn't mind not knowing everything about tuber blights and famines and cloning and Conquistadors and soil chemistry, and when I questioned her, she gently reminded me that I wasn't writing Moby-Dick, and anyway Herman Melville would never have gotten a book contract in this day and age of publishing. This is why writers need smart editors who care.
Performance protests such as those launched by The Seeds of Resistance are common in some parts of America, particularly in the Midwest. Did you have any first-hand experience with their brand of information dissemination?
I don't know if they are common or not. Maybe not as common as they should be. I haven't had a lot of first-hand experience with direct action protests, but I know a lot of people who regularly do. Everyone has his or her own style of social participation, and mine is primarily through my writing and speaking.
Were you purposely ambiguous about the perpetrator of the tragic event near the end of the novel? Was it important to you to propose the possibility that the destruction was accidental?
Good question. Yes.
Are you a gardener? What did your characters teach you about "growing" a novel?
I'm not a gardener, but my husband is. He is an obsessed gardener. He gardens night and day. He gardens the way I write. He'll grow anything, but he has a special fondness for cacti, which he grows from seed. Do you know how long that takes? And not only that, he collects his own seeds, which means he has to hand-pollinate each of the cactus flowers first. He collects the pollen by making miniature dunce caps that fit over the top of a blossom. When the pollen collects like dust on the sides of the cap, he takes a tiny sable paintbrush and transfers it to another flower and waits for it to produce seed. These cactus seeds are tiny and very slow to germinate. Once he plants them, he waits. And waits —you can imagine the suspense—until eventually a tiny green nub pokes through the sand. He has, in his collection, ten-year-old cacti the size of a worn-down pencil eraser. Ten years. Compared to that, novels are quick and easy.
But in the same way that a gardener learns from his plants, a writer has to let her characters teach her. But it's not easy. Here's another example of hubris: You start a novel feeling like God, populating your imaginary world, and you feel enormously powerful and in control, but years later, as the novel comes to a close, you realize that you have mysteriously become enslaved to your characters and their whims and their ways. It's hopeless, really, and the only answer is to forgo control and let the characters lead you.
How did you balance the novel's humor with its weighty issues? How did you keep the polemical aspect of the plot from dominating the novel's tone?
I guess I don't see the humor as being separate or apart from the weighty issues. Weighty issues are quite funny, in addition to being quite serious, and thank goodness for that! Were that not the case, how could one bear to tackle them?
I don't think of my novels as didactic or polemical. I certainly don't write them in order to "teach" or to "convert." That's totally not the point. I write in order to initiate an inquiry, primarily my own, and if the reader's spirit of inquiry is sparked by my puzzles and enthusiasms, well, that great, but it's almost a by-product. However, having said that, since I do publish, I have to cop to the fact that I hope readers are sparked, and that good things will come from our efforts.
Many of your characters are at odds with one another. Were you able to divide your loyalties equally among them, particularly when it came to Yumi and Cassie?
When I write a character, I inhabit that character. When I was a little girl, about six or seven, I remember realizing, with a deep sense of shock, that I was forever trapped inside my skin, and I would never be able to experience the world from inside another's. This fundamental human limitation struck me as profoundly tragic and unsettling. What if my brief six or seven years of experience were entirely subjective, and my cognizance of the world were mine alone? What if what I saw as green, you saw as red? How would I ever know otherwise? Suddenly the world felt like such a lonesome place, and I remember wishing that I could slip magically inside someone else's body and look out their eyes, for a minute or even a single second. If I could do that, I would know. I'm sure I started to write in order to combat this terrible loneliness.
Now...what was the question? Oh, right. Because I do inhabit my characters to such an extent, I've never had a problem with divided loyalties. My main problem is that certain characters, like certain people I know, are very pushy and try to take over. Generally it's the character that most resembles me, and the trick is to make her shut up.
Yumi's name is ideal for her character. What inspired you to call her Yumi?
You. Me. And the inevitable mispronunciation—Yummy—which allowed me to pay tribute to one of the finest songs of the Seventies.
What's next from you—another novel, or a film?
I wonder if I'll ever make another film. It's so darn hard. I hate to be lazy, but it's easier to write, and a lot cheaper. However, having said that, I'm tempted to make another film about my mother. My husband and I take care of her. She has Alzheimer's now, and while that is very sad, she also happens to be very funny. There. You see? Dementia is certainly a weighty issue, but it has its humorous sides, too, mostly having to do with the way my mother constantly trips me up.
But realistically, I think I'll write another novel. I have a couple of story ideas and a passel of characters inside my brain, fighting like cats in a sack. It'll be interesting to see who emerges first.
Posted March 6, 2014
Posted May 7, 2011
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When I began reading this book I wasn't sure if I would really enjoy it or not. As I got deeper into the story, it evolved into an emotional journey from a young girl and her severed relationship with her parents to one of reconciliation and forgivness. It also takes you through the emotional turmoil she went through while trying to reconnect and after she reconnected with them and the heartbreak of dealing with 2 very ill parents.
I have to say if you don't find the book interesting when you first start to stick with it because it is quite a journey this young girl who becomes a women and single mother goes through.
Posted April 25, 2004
I thoroughly enjoyed this book from beginning to end. I couldn't put it down! Agriculture plays an important role in this story, as well as serving as a metaphor. From seed to blossom to fruit to harvest to death and rebirth...we see it literally in the potato fields of Idaho. We see it played out in the lives of the Fuller family (and others) as well. The scientific research is wonderful and I learned a great deal. Ozeki raises important issues and questions and, thankfully, refrains from giving simplistic answers. What gripped me the most about this novel, however, were the myriand human relationships: Yumi returning home to her dying father after 25 years, her relationship to her own children, her friendship with Cass, Cass' relationship with her husband Will after numerous miscarriages... I was also impressed by the way Ozeki deals with cultural change and adaption. I never thought I'd see a book in which a fundamentalist Christian and a radical environmentalist truly befriend and learn from each other. It was refreshing. Even rural Idaho is subject to cultural and global influences it must learn to accomodate. Even rural Idaho has something to teach the rest of us.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 25, 2003
I liked this book from the first page. Rarely does that happen. Great handling of character development since there were so many of them. A lot of inter-twining story lines here guide Ozeki's characters to come together in the name of healthy and nutritious food. Ozeki has a great sense of sentimentality while using her tilted humor to tell the story. She does so well with pairing a bunch of societal clashes- East versus West ethnicity, old versus new generations, traditional versus alternative lifestyles and even organic versus biotechnology. Throw in an RV running on 'used french-fry oil' and you've got one of the best books I've read in a long time. Can't wait to see more from this author!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 10, 2003
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