Friday, May 17, 2013

All Over Creation

All Over Creation (2003), written by Ruth Ozeki, is especially timely given the May 13th Supreme Court ruling protecting the patent on genetically modified soybeans. The case involves a 75-year-old Indiana farmer, Vernon Bowman, who harvested crops from seeds that Monsanto created and patented. These seeds were modified to resist the weedkiller, Roundup. As Justice Kagan wrote in the unanimous ruling: "Bowman was not a passive observer of his soybeans' multiplication; or put another way, the seeds he purchased (miraculous though they might be in other respects) did not spontaneously create eight successive soybean crops.)" (Washington Post, May 13, 2013)

While the ruling will encourage and protect innovation in developing new technologies, such as genes that identify disease, it none-the-less supports huge companies, such as Monsanto, who increasingly control agriculture. To quote Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety: "The court chose to protect Monsanto over farmers. The court's ruling is contrary to logic and to agronomics because it improperly attributes seeds' reproduction to farmers rather than nature." Article Link

All Over Creation fictionalizes this issue in a fast-moving and engaging novel. Cynaco Corporation is a Monsanto-like company that is aggressively marketing a pesticide-resistant potato to Idaho farmers. Lloyd and Momoko Fuller, now in their later years, have thus far refused to buy this product.

Both Lloyd and Momoko are very ill. Lloyd has had a series of heart attacks and is now battling cancer.  Momoko suffers from dementia, though she is physically well. Her days are spent cultivating the unique collection of seeds she has created throughout her long marriage.

The plot centers on the homecoming of their estranged daughter, Yumi. Yumi was a wild child who, at age 14, had an affair with her high school teacher.  She got pregnant, had a back alley abortion and ran away.  Now, 25 years later, she reluctantly returns to the farm to make see her dying father and amends. Her childhood best friend, Cassie, along with husband Will, have bought her parent's farm and are caring for her parents. They are also testing the NuLife Potatoes from Cynaco, believing they have less pesticide than the conventionally grown brand.

The plot becomes more involved when Eliot, the teacher with whom Yumi had her affair, returns as the PR representative for Cynaco. He has changed very little from the needy, self-involved man he was. Adding to this mix is an activist group called The Seeds. Proponents of  peaceful yet guerrilla tactics against large agribusinesses, they roam the country in their RV. They have seen Momoko's seed catalog and have heard of Lloyd.  He becomes a kind of rebbi to them and they put down some temporary roots on Lloyd's farm.

All Over Creation contains sympathetic, three-dimensional characters. Ozeki brings to light the many issues facing contemporary farming. Above all, she illuminates the complexities of family dynamics, questioning whether forgiveness is truly possible. As Josh Emmons concludes:

(Ozeki's skill at weaving together) dual narratives of family reunion and corporate malfeasance is extraordinary. The Fullers' drama is as real and organic as the method of farming promoted by the book's itinerant activists, and the ways in which the personal becomes political and vice versa are thrilling to watch. (San Francisco Chronicle, Sunday, March 16, 2003)

Ruth Ozeki has once again written a book that is hard to put down.

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