Ruth Ozeki’s 2004 bestseller, “All Over Creation”, is an anti-pastoral story – one of hardship, struggle, turmoil, and disconnect. It is a story about seeds and growth – both literally and metaphorically. Far from idealizing farm life, “All Over Creation” makes the community as roundly developed and fallible as any other character.
In Liberty Falls, Idaho, Yumi Fuller lives on a potato farm with her Japanese mother Momoko and her staunchly ‘salt of the earth’ father Lloyd. Yumi’s life begins in a relatively predictable manner; she is drawn to her silent, reserved father, orbiting around him and thriving in the smallest of lights he shines on her.
“Finally Momoko would press her lips togther. ‘Hmm,’ she would grunt. ‘Two peas in a pod.’ …Did he teach her that phrase? She seemed to enjoy saying it, enjoy her role in your ceremony, although with that act of abnegation, she put herself outside the two of you. What did that cost her? At least a small twinge of belonging, because if your heart was any measure, your face must have lit up like the sun, to hear her pronouncement. Did that hurt her, too? It was triumph to you. Flesh of her flesh, turning from her – you would have banished her entirely, had you not needed the power of her affirmation. Oh, yeah, your allegiances were firmly with Daddy.”
As adolescence descends, however, Yumi’s childhood ‘spirit’ becomes teenage angst and rebellion. By age 14, Yumi has fled her family, her town, and the life she knows, staying away for more than 25 years.
“Do you remember when that ammonia train car derailed over behind the Ungers? And all the stuff went into the air and we all had to evacuate, and how scared we were because the poisonous gas was going everywhere, on every wind, but you couldn’t see it? That’s what it was going to be like. I could tell that your shame was going to fill every crack in the house, seep into every second of the day, and suck the air right out of me. And when the word got around, there wasn’t going to be any room left for me to breathe in the whole of Power County that wasn’t taken up with your shame. It wasn’t fair. You might think that the poison was in me, Daddy, but you’d be wrong. I was just the derailed train car. The shame was yours, and I knew if I stayed, I’d be poisoned by it. I’d grow up all screwy and bent with the weight of your shame. So I left. It was an evacuation, Daddy.”
Ozeki’s characters are deeply flawed and sometimes frustratingly one dimensional. The adult Yumi returns to Liberty Falls and, seemingly, her teenage years in one fell swoop. Yumi’s smarmy childhood love returns, too, without seeming to have learned anything from the intervening decades. Even Yumi’s parents, at once calmly sage and virulently stubborn, seem only to have aged, not matured. Perhaps this one-dimensionality is purposeful; perhaps Ozeki suggests that people don’t really change, even as the world around them changes. As an outsider looking in, however, the characters’ stagnation was often frustrating.
In truth, Ozeki does play with time and its effect on her characters, but primarily in terms of status changes – adulthood, marriage, parenthood – not in personal maturity. In a particularly insightful passage, Yumi’s childhood best friend Cass struggles precisely with this concept of time passed.
“[These thoughts] confused her, made her angry, as though the whole middle section of her life – the part where she was supposed to grow to adulthood, bear children be a young mother, and watch her children grow – had simply been elided. Slurred over. She felt, at once, far too old and impossibly young, and there was a gap in the middle, like a section of her torso had gone missing. Sometimes in dreams she lived in these gaps, where small false starts came to naught, and sparks of life shriveled or spiraled up like burning ash only to turn to powder on her fingertips when she tried to catch them in the air.”
Similarly, Yumi has a rare moment of insight, ruminating that:
“Time plays tricks on mothers. It teases you with breaks and brief caesuras, only to skip wildly forward, bringing breathtaking changes to your baby’s body. Only he wasn’t a baby anymore, and how often did I have to learn that? The lessons were painful. Like that time when I inhaled, expecting his sweet scent, and got the first fetid whiff of adult decay. He must have been six or seven, and how I grieved for his infant perfection! Soon after, I reached for him, still full of confidence and maternal entitlement, and I felt him stiffen and pull away.”
“All Over Creation” was the first of Ruth Ozeki’s books which I have read. Ozeki’s writing had seeds of beauty, new sprouts showing elegance and grace that seemed promising and demonstrated the writer’s, er, green thumb. Unfortunately, I also found that the novel’s plot points were often telegraphed and cliche-adjacent. Perhaps the potato is an apt metaphor for the book itself – solid, filling, satiating, if not exactly brimming with remarkable, memorable flavor.