Cracking their moral fiber

Michael Harris is a regular contributor to Book Review.

Seeds are a central metaphor in Ruth Ozeki’s second novel. Its protagonist, Yumi “Yummy” Fuller, has been considered a “bad seed” in Liberty Falls, Idaho, ever since she had sex with her ninth-grade history teacher, got an abortion and ran away from her parents’ 3,000-acre potato farm. Her Japanese-born mother, Momoko, sells seeds by mail and sends Yumi some of the profits. Her father, Lloyd, preaches a Christian brand of environmentalism that attracts the attention of a band of eco-activists called the Seeds of Resistance.

The preaching in Ozeki’s first novel, “My Year of Meats,” was about the evils of the beef industry and the way documentary films can shill for corporations. Here the villain is a giant firm that once made napalm and defoliants for Vietnam and now wants to market a potato that has been genetically altered to double as a pesticide. When bugs eat it, they die. When people eat it ... well, nobody knows for sure.

Yumi, who survived the streets and has built a makeshift life as a college lecturer and real estate saleswoman in Hawaii, reluctantly returns to Idaho after 25 years because Lloyd is dying and Momoko has Alzheimer’s. Yumi brings along her three children by three fathers, all absent. Their arrival at the Fuller farm -- now operated by Yumi’s former best friend, Cass Quinn, and Cass’ husband, Will -- coincides with the arrival of the activist Seeds in a modified Winnebago they call the Spudnik.


Will has planted the genetically altered potatoes in some of his fields. The Seeds plan to rip some of them up (with TV cameras running) to dramatize what they see as a last-ditch battle to save nature from human rapacity. Will likes these scruffy, idealistic young people enough to let them stay on the farm, but messing with his crop, even if the Seeds compensate him for it, is another matter. If that happens, he’s willing to see them thrown in jail, even a French Canadian girl, Charmey, who is about to have a baby.

The Seeds view Lloyd, whom Yumi has spent most of her life hating, as a “prophet of the revolution.” Cass, who was whipped by her father, underwent a double mastectomy and can’t bear children, views Yumi as a alcoholic and promiscuous hippie, an unfit and undeserving mother. To make matters worse -- and to test our suspension of disbelief -- the former teacher, Elliot Rhodes, now a slick public relations man for the biotech firm, arrives in Liberty Falls at the same time, and Yumi falls into bed with him again.

The Seeds start staging “actions” at supermarkets and potato processing plants. Meanwhile, they try to absorb Lloyd’s wisdom and save Momoko’s diverse strains of seeds before the old woman forgets what she has. They are aware that one of the biotech firm’s other projects is seed that will produce plants but no new seeds. This “Terminator” technology, which the firm justifies as a way of preserving its intellectual property, will force farmers to buy new seed each year. The activists fear it will hasten the day when only a few commercial species of life will grow on Earth.

The value of diversity, in fact, is Ozeki’s theme. She is a gifted storyteller. “All Over Creation” buzzes and blooms with the cross-pollination of races and subcultures, death and birth, betrayal and reconciliation, comedy and tragedy. The plotting may be contrived and the peripheral figures two-dimensional -- the Seeds are too good to be true, and Elliot’s boss renders even diversity sterile by turning Asian philosophy into just another management tool -- but Ozeki’s insight into her major characters is deep and sure.

Elliot is a good example. He has lost his soul, and now and then he realizes this, but even his attempts at reform are tangled in lies. He is too good at marshaling valid arguments for suspect purposes -- pointing out, for instance, that his firm’s new potato will reduce the need for pesticide sprays and clean up the water on Native American lands. He solicits the aid of church groups by revealing that the Seeds’ source of income is a pornographic Web site. He sees that he needs Yumi’s forgiveness but can’t stop using her to advance his company’s cause. In the end, he’s pitiable as well as contemptible.

The reader may or may not agree with Ozeki’s views on politics or agriculture. The issues, even in her partisan gloss of them, are complex. But this part of the novel can be considered its husk, to be chewed for the benefit of its fiber or simply cracked and spit out. The heart of it -- in which stoic Cass succumbs briefly to the impulse to steal one of Yumi’s children; in which Yumi, unlike Elliot, finds the road back to her better self -- is in the soft and living core, just as with a seed.