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From The Asian Reporter, V14, #15 (April 6, 2004), page 20.
May your gardens grow
All Over Creation
By Ruth Ozeki
Paperback, 432 pages, $14.00
By Josephine Bridges
All Over Creation is one bold title; readers expect a book to live up to a title like that. Those delighted by Ruth Ozekiís first novel, My Year of Meats, are also going to have high hopes for her second. Rest assured, readers. If anything, All Over Creation exceeds the standard set by Ozekiís earlier work, as well as the daring words printed on this novelís spine.
Yumi Fuller is a dazzling protagonist. Sheís smart, beautiful, and funny, but she just canít seem to get comfortable, and the family and friends Yumi is visiting during her fatherís illness are clearly ill at ease in her presence. "It was so easy for them to offer comfort, to tap compassion," she muses bitterly. "He wasnít their father. Silently I cursed them." I have often wished I could have coffee with characters in novels, but Iíll admit I was relieved that Yumi and I never got together.
Yumiís father, Lloyd, is a retired potato farmer. Yumi hasnít seen him since she ran away from home when she was 14. Now that his health is failing, Yumi is 38, and itís time for her three children to meet their grandfather. Lloyd brought Yumiís mother, Momoko, home with him from Japan after the war. A "born gardener," she whispers to pea vines and onions, "Gambatte ne, tanť chan!" "Be strong, my little seedlings." But sheís losing her memory, and the old farmhouse is full of index cards labeling the furniture and appliances they are taped to. "TOASTER, read one. MR. COFFEE, read another."
Cassie Quinn was Yumiís best friend in high school. While Yumi was cast as the Native American princess in the elementary school Thanksgiving pageant, Cass played a potato. As an adult, she is still Yumiís opposite: kind, reliable, and longing for a child she canít conceive. Her husband Will, describing Yumi as an unfit mother, "managed to sound both angry and wistful."
The Seeds of Resistance are a group of environmental activists traveling in the "Spudnik," a vegetable-oil-powered vehicle that looks like "something that you might want to take camping in Beirut or Bosnia." Frank, their most recent recruit, "knew a lot of the kids who worked at Thrifty Foods Ö and he wasnít at all convinced they were ready to have their consciousness raised quite yet. Wages, yes, but consciousness? Frank sort of doubted they had any to begin with." Geek, a founder of the group, describes the marvel of plants to him: "Each one is a complex software, and so are we. And the really wild part is, weíre all interactive! We can all learn, Frankie Ö The pea has learned to taste sweet, so that the farmer will plant more of it."
Phoenix, Ocean, and Poo are Yumiís three children. When her grumpy grandfather asks, "What kind of children have names like that?" Ocean doesnít realize itís a rhetorical question. "Weíre good children," she tells him. "Thatís what kind." In the wake of potential violence at school, Phoenix, who is now the same age his mother was when she ran away from home, looks at her with "a terrible kind of pity. ĎDonít worry,í he says, ĎIím not going anywhere.í"
Elliot Rhodes was Yumiís history teacher and her first love. Now heís a PR flak who writes speeches with titles like "Political Activists or Just Plain Old Pests?"
Imagine all of these forces converging on a potato farm in Power County, Idaho. Imagine birth and death and tragedy and hope in the aftermath. At times hilarious, at times painfully serious, All Over Creation is a whole world unto itself.
I found only one flaw in this book, but itís a flaw specific to the Willamette Valley, and I want to warn locals before they get indignant. Yumi writes to her mother, "Thanks for the letter. It finally caught up to me here in Portland. Paul and I decided to get married after all. He got a job at the University of Oregon, and I came here to be with him." Thatís one long commute.
Be that as it may, All Over Creation gets a rave review from me. In her acknowledgements, Ruth Ozeki writes, "Thanks to all who save and plant. May your gardens grow." Thanks to you for writing about it, Ruth. May your words and your vegetables also flourish.
Ruth Ozeki is visiting the Pacific Northwest this month, publicizing the release of All Over Creation in paperback. On Monday, April 12 she will be at Elliott Bay Books in Seattle (101 S. Main Street). The following day she will visit Portlandís Annie Bloomís Book (7834 S.W. Capitol Highway). Both events will take place at 7:30pm. For in- formation, call (206) 624-6600 or (503) 246-0053, or visit <www.elliottbaybook.com> or <www.annieblooms.com>.