You’ve got to hand it to Ruth Ozeki – a 420-page book about potatoes hardly sounds like a scintillating read. But, in her novel All Over Creation, Ozeki manages to weave a fairly fascinating yarn mainly centering on the vegetables. The fact that she does it while folding in such prickly elements such as environmental activism, abortion, infertility, terminal illness and pesticides is all the more amazing.
All Over Creation revolves around a group of residents in the town of Liberty Falls, Idaho -- an area that, you might imagine, is rife with potato farmers. Yumi Fuller (nicknamed Yummy) is the daughter of farmer Lloyd Fuller and his Japanese wife, Momoko, who has a talent for growing things to rival any other farmer. An affair with her history teacher at the age of 14 led Yummy to flee town, leaving behind her parents and her best friend, Cass.
Twenty-five years later, Lloyd and Momoko are both ill, and Cass and her stalwart husband, Will, are stuck taking care of them in the absence of the errant Yummy. Cass, still deeply bitter at Yummy’s abrupt departure, tracks her down and cajoles her into coming back to Idaho to care for her parents.
Yummy returns with three children (from three different fathers) and a pile of issues about her past. Meanwhile, a group of radical environmentalists who call themselves the Seeds of Resistance mark Lloyd and Momoko as prophets of organic gardening and travel to Idaho to meet them – and to continue their protests about the use of pesticides in potato-growing.
And that’s just the start. Ozeki’s novel is so rich that a description of its story barely scratches the surface. She creates a cast of interesting, complicated, not always sympathetic characters, from the screwed-up Yummy to her angry teen son Phoenix and self-deluded ex-lover (if that’s right word) Elliot. But maybe the characters are a mite too unsympathetic. Yummy is a little too self-involved and shallow to truly win our allegiance as a main character.
However, I liked the fact that Cass isn’t painted as entirely saintly (after suffering multiple miscarriages, she not-so-secretly feels that flaky Yummy doesn’t deserve her children and briefly -- but seriously -- considers taking drastic measures to get a baby of her own). I also loved the Seeds of Resistance, especially Geek, the group’s intense but compassionate leader and Frankie, a wayward teen who finally finds direction after being recruited by the Seeds.
Throughout it all, potatoes – and, by extension, all living things – are given a degree of respect seldom seen in fiction. That makes All Over Creation sound goofy, but actually it’s moving, smart and funny. Much like a potato, the book’s odd appearance masks a bevy of treats inside.