All Over Creation, by Ruth Ozeki. Viking. 400 pages. $24.95.
It was Iris Murdoch who once opined that "a novelist should be wary of being a teacher in a didactic sense, but should be conscious of himself as a moralist." Still, it is only the truly exceptional novelist who can turn issues into stories, politics into dreams. Rare is the book that succeeds as indoctrination or instruction, while at the same time delivering indelible characters, pitch-perfect dialogue, wholly involving plot. Rare is a call to action delivered in supple, enduring prose.
Ruth Ozeki's second novel, All Over Creation, (her first being the quirky My Year of Meats) stands among that elite handful of books that both teaches and inspires, chides and appeases.
At its heart lies Yumi Fuller, a Japanese-American mother of three who has returned to her parents' Idaho potato farm after a 25-year absence. Things are not what they were when she ran off so long ago. Her father, a once well-regarded farmer, is dying. Her mother, a breeder and harvester of seeds, is losing her memory. Her childhood friend Cass is living off the land Yumi grew up on, and the high school teacher whose rogue carelessness was the cause of Yumi's adolescent heartache has returned to town and is conveniently posted in a roadside motel.
Then there's the Seeds of Resistance, an eco-activist group whose members go by such names as Y, Frank Perdue, Charmey and Lileth, and whose intellectual leader is a guy named Geek, a guy so knowledgeable about the science of plants and so passionate about the ruin wrought by genetic engineering that he turns politics into poetry-speak. "Genetic engineering is changing the semantics, the meaning of life itself," Geek explains to Frank at one point." We're trying to usurp the plant's choice. To force alien words into the plant's poem, but we got a problem. We barely know the root language. Genetic grammar's a mystery, and our engineers are just one click up the evolutionary ladder from a roomful of monkeys, typing random sonnets on a bank of typewriters."
Determined to save the vulnerable planet from biotech companies who market seeds designed to self-destruct, potatoes that are "genetically spliced with bacterial pesticides," and "tomatoes crossed with fish genes to increase their resistance to the cold," the members of Seeds of Resistance careen their way across the country, finally setting up shop on the very farm Yumi has returned to.
The clash of interests, the entanglement of politics, the very real tenderness these characters feel for one another even when they stand on opposite sides of the flaring genetic engineering battle, constitutes the core of the novel. How Yumi will come to terms with her radical past and her ambiguous present circumstances serves as its emotional center.
To her great credit, Ozeki steers just shy of screed in All Over Creation by representing the plight of the farmers and by giving those who promote the concept of genetic engineering room for their own slogans, their own rebuttal. In the end, the presentation of politics here is as complex and multidimensional as Ozeki's characters. This novel is a tour de force -- structurally sophisticated, conceptually sound, well-rooted in a concern for both people and the earth.
Beth Kephart is the award-winning author of three memoirs. Her reviews, essays and profiles appear in The New York Times, Washington Post Book World, Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia magazine, Book magazine, Salon.com and elsewhere.