While most of the reviews I read indicated that people either loved it or hated it, I’m much more ambivalent about this book. I really didn’t like the main character or many of her choices (though I didn’t hate her, and in many cases I could understand those choices). I also could see why some people felt the anti-GMO message was over the top, but I actually thought the author did a really good job of weaving it into the story so that it made sense and showed the issue (or rather the arguments against GMOs) from multiple points of view–farmers and regular folks as well as activists. For me, it was a pretty good choice for my reading challenge, but not great.
I am reading my way across the USA–5 or so books from each state, where the setting becomes another character in the book, or where we learn something about the history, geography, or people of the state. This is our first book for Idaho.
When I picked All Over Creation, I was concerned about the inclusion of a character suffering from Alzheimer’s. My mother had recently died from complications related to Alzheimer’s, and I was afraid this might be too painful. It was really a non-issue, though. Momoko’s condition seemed more like a caricature than a well-researched actual condition. For instance, there’s a scene where Yumi catches Momoko moving the labels that her husband has put around the house for her. When asked what she’s doing, she says she’s trying to get Nix (her grandson) in trouble with his mother (Yumi–her daughter to whom she is speaking without realizing it).
“You know that Nix? He is very bad boy. He play some tricks on me, moving all the labels. So now I trick him back. I move them first, then she think he did it.” “She? Who is she?” “His mommy. When she catch him, boy, oh, boy, she get plenty mad!” … “Who are you?” she asked blankly. She wasn’t joking.
This is a really funny scene, but Alzheimer’s doesn’t really work like that. The memory disappears in reverse order, so the short-term memory of Nix and his tricks would have been the first to go. My mom forgot my son first, then me. She recognized names until the very end but not faces. For a while she was happy to snuggle with my son, even though she couldn’t remember who he was, but that went too. But she responded to my dad or her sister for much longer. If Momoko wasn’t recognizing Yumi, then it’s very unlikely she would remember Nix’s name or his tricks. I have to say, however, that the inaccuracies made it easier for me to read.
I would have liked more about Momoko, actually. She was the one who started the heirloom seed company surrounded by Idaho potato fields. She was a Japanese woman brought back to those Idaho potato fields with her G.I. husband after World War II. She apparently spent years punishing him for not going after their daughter when she ran away at 14. I liked her a lot more than I liked Yummy/Yumi, although I’m sure she wasn’t perfect. Maybe the point of telling it from Yumi’s point of view had to do with her ambivalence to the GMO issue–which is similar to that of most Americans, but I feel like even though I got frustrated with Yumi it didn’t make me change my own quasi-ambivalence. Perhaps telling it from the point of view of Momoko and showing her passion would have been more effective.
There’s not much about Yumi growing up with a Japanese-American mother. Well, that’s not entirely true. The entire community mispronounces her name, Yumi–you-me–as Yummy, and she is always given the role of the Native American princess in the annual Thanksgiving play due to her long black hair. But she’s insulated from some of the discrimination faced by Japanese-American characters we read about in Bento Box in the Heartland and Kira-Kira by her (white) father’s standing in the community.
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.
I also quite liked Cassie, the potato farmer’s wife and Yumi’s best friend growing up (though even Cass calls her Yummy too). Her health issues–breast cancer and infertility–brought that aspect of agri-business to light and gave it a human face. This exchange between her and Yumi helps us understand the Hobson’s choice of the farmer.
“Can’t you stop using it?” She looked pityingly at me. “You really don’t know shit about potatoes, do you? We got three thousand acres, it’s not that easy.” “But if it’s poisoning you . . .” Poo had fallen asleep and started to slump. Now she hauled him higher on her lap. “Banks don’t lend money to farmers who don’t use inputs. Not sound farming practice.”
You may remember that in Nebraska we read about Haven Grebel’s organic farm in Haven’s Wake. I didn’t mention it in my review, but Ladette Randolph’s character caught himself feeling uncomfortable taking a drink of water from a run-off area and extrapolated from that, making the decision not to use fertilizers (inputs) any more. He’s definitely the odd-man-out in the area, and I don’t think his farm was as big as Will and Cass’s 3000 acres, but he was able to make it work.
It’s a real financial dilemma, though, particularly since the organic designation usually indicates that the crops and land haven’t been sprayed in at least three years–which means three years caught in between. There are a few companies that market certain products as transitional to try to help farmers during that period, but it can be a big deterrent to making the change.
The physical descriptions of Idaho–particularly the lower section of the state where the potato farms are–are wonderful, if occasionally grandiose.
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.
The small-scale descriptions are great too, helped occasionally, by a contrast to Hawaii, where Yumi has moved:
The first hard frost had come early this year, and now the wind was picking up. Outside the window the satellite dish rattled in the Quinns’ bare front yard. The cottonwood tree, dry and brittle, creaked the way it did only in winter. … Interstate 86 ran west from the Pocatello airport to Liberty Falls, away from the foothills, perfectly straight, perfectly flat, cutting through a landscape that lay covered by new snow. The moon broke reluctantly through receding clouds. … Yummy stared out the window at the bright, icy expanse. “There’s nothing out there,” she breathed. “I’d completely forgotten. So big. So empty. … It’s never like this in Hawaii. Everything’s growing all the time—a regular hotbed of vegetative activity. But here . . .” “It’s quiet, all right. Not much happens in winter. Aside from the storms.”
One thing that has surprised me about Idaho is the variety of landscape and ecosystem. I tend to think of Idaho as the mountains (along the border with Montana and in the panhandle) and the volcanic areas interspersed with the farmlands that have overtaken them. But several of the books mention the Idaho desert in passing, and after a couple of times, I decided to look it up. The Owyhee Desert (which is mentioned by name in The Man Who Fell In Love With the Moon, which we’ll get to eventually) includes the area southwest of Boise and goes into northern Nevada.
Lovely! And not really what I picture for Idaho.
The other landscape I hadn’t been aware of is the Palouse–the grasslands around Moscow in the lower panhandle that extends into Washington.
Again, not quite what I picture for Idaho, but perfect horse country–Borrowed Horses takes place here. Incidentally, the name Palouse is related to that of the Appaloosa horse, which was apparently bred by the Nez Perce around the Palouse River basin.
But, back to volcanic potato country! It’s mentioned several times that the fertility of the land is due to its volcanic origins (much like in Hawaii), and there’s even a lava tube that features in one of Yumi’s childhood memories. She discovers it on a neighbor’s property, and he eventually develops it into a small tourist trap.
Ozeki is very obviously against GMOs. Most GMOs are related to corn, soybeans, and canola, although there are a few others. Potatoes are one of those others, though the traits modified have to do with blight resistance, non-browning, and reduced bruising and spotting, rather than the pesticide modification of the story. In fact, that pesticide modification is not how the current real-life insect resistance modification works, but… dramatic license and all that–it’s certainly more compelling to have bugs eat the plants and keel over dead.
Don’t get me wrong–I’m not in favor of GMOs. I buy organics and heirloom varieties, particularly of the GMO crops. I vote both literally and with my pocketbook. But on this particular issue perhaps I tend to find myself identifying with Yumi–not quite in the “it’s no big deal” camp and not quite as “in bed” with big agribusiness, but nowhere near as passionate about the topic as the inhabitants of Spudnik.
So… how does All Over Creation do with setting? Well, we talked a little about it above in terms of landscape and ecosystems. In terms of the people, we’ve perhaps seen a bit from Yumi’s experiences growing up Japanese-American in Idaho. We also learn a tiny bit about the prevalence of the Mormon faith, though not much.
“Have a cup of coffee.” “Just water for me, please. I don’t do caffeine.” “Are you Church, Melvin?” Will asked. The man looked perplexed. “He means Mormon,” I interpreted. “Latter-Day Saints. It’s big around here. They don’t do caffeine either.”
But mostly we don’t really get much of a feel for the general populace, at least not as individuals. There are a couple of individual extremists–the sheriff and the private investigator–and then there’s the generics–the farmers and the Church (in the form of the protesters). If anything, it’s implied that the majority of the community falls in at least one of those categories and both disapprove of the hippy Seeds. They disapprove of Lloyd and Momoko’s crazy ideas as well, but the Fullers are given a little leeway due to their history with the community as potato farmers. The portrayal of the people of Idaho comes across as pretty one-dimensional and not very flattering.
There are two quotes that seem to represent Ozeki’s Idahoans:
“Phoenix, remember what I told you. This is Idaho. Call me Mommy, and stop swearing or the townsfolk will lynch you.”
That’s what it felt like when I was growing up, like I was a random fruit in a field of genetically identical potatoes.
Not very flattering, as I said.
So… All Over Creation by Ruth Ozeki was a decent choice for our reading challenge for Idaho. It’s also turned out to be the only one we’re reading that’s set in the main part of the state and in modern times. It’s got some good descriptions, but much of it seems… rather stereotypical and shallow when it comes to describing Idaho and its people. I’m hoping for some better Idaho reads. Stay tuned.