Growing up in Idaho potato country with an odd Japanese mother and a pro-life American father, exotic-looking Yumi Fuller felt like "a random fruit in a field of genetically identical potatoes." She ran away at 14 and did not return for almost 25 years.
Was "Yummy" a bad girl? The apple of her father's eye, gone rotten? Not really. Readers of Ruth Ozeki's splendid earlier novel, the provocative My Year of Meats (1998), know this author seldom judges. She merely bears witness to paradox and compromise.
All Over Creation describes a prodigal daughter's return to see for one last time her ill, aged parents. The mother, Momoko, has Alzheimer's; the father, Lloyd, is dying. Yummy's old friend Cass locates her through the Internet and summons her back home.
This serious book by a former filmmaker is leavened with outrageous visual humor as when Yummy's teenaged son Phoenix takes the labels his grandfather made for his grandmother (STOVE, REFRIGERATOR, etc.) and attaches them to all the wrong objects.
Readers soon regard all Ozeki's characters as old friends, for they seem as contradictory as real people. Even the seemingly selfless Cass a cancer survivor who looked after the Fuller parents in Yummy's absence is not without sin. She was the lumpy child assigned to play the potato in their school's Thanksgiving pageant, while beautiful Yummy was always the Indian princess.
"Yummy, do you know what it's like to go through life as a side dish?" Cass asks, years later.
"No." "I didn't think so." Cass, an earth mother type married to a Vietnam vet and living on a potato farm, has only miscarriages; Yummy lives in lush Hawaii and has three cute children she cares for haphazardly. Yet somehow the women's old friendship rekindles believably.
As an occasional first-person narrator, Yummy provides the outsider's perspective on life in potato country. She finds herself drinking and smoking more than she's done in a while, and escaping into hot sex with someone she never expected to see again.
Chapter Two introduces a band of young radical protesters the Seeds of Resistance traveling the land in a camper that runs on discarded oil from fast-food restaurants. To support their mission of saving the world, the Seeds operate a pornographic Web site. But if you think they're not sweet, loving people, watch them at Yummy's parents' farm.
Like My Year of Meats, this novel looks critically at what happens to America's food before it reaches the table. Genetically engineered potatoes not beef draw the author's ire this time. But the real culprits are the commercial interests who would keep the truth hidden, covering up dangers to the public.
Even more emotionally satisfying than Ozeki's first novel, All Over Creation will likely leave many readers praying for the creation of a sequel.