Starch-free protest

A novel with eyes for family challenge and global crisis

Green protesters have more rings in their trunk than you might think. Twenty years before Brother Mendel published the first sprouts of genetic research about the peas in his garden, Nathaniel Hawthorne was already warning about the dangers of interfering with nature. In 1844, the Concord writer didn't know anything about genes, or cloned sheep, or bug-zapping corn, but he published a weird short story called "Rappaccini's Daughter." Besides giving birth to the mouthwash industry (Rappaccini's daughter can kill people with her breath), the story stands as one of the earliest American protests against meddling with an organism's traits.

Now, Monsanto and other biochemical companies are concentrating hard on genetically modified food, while spraying herbicide on mandatory labeling laws to keep consumers worry-free. Hippies screaming about "Frankenspuds" are easy to weed, but a new literary threat may be harder for the industry to squash.

Hog farmers are getting skinned alive by Annie Proulx's "That Old Ace in the Hole." And now Ruth Ozeki takes a whack at genetic engineers with a wonderful new novel called "All Over Creation." Along with Barbara Kingsolver, these politically oriented authors form a persuasive triumvirate. Their immense popularity among sophisticated women readers and book clubs means that the consumers who are most valuable to food manufacturers are being fed a diet high in anti-industry sentiments.

While Proulx's latest novel squeals like propaganda, Ozeki balances intimate and global concerns perfectly. She tells the story of a frustratingly irresponsible woman named Yumi who ran away from her parents when she was 14. A history teacher had seduced her and then pressured her into having an abortion. When her father, a fundamentalist potato farmer, discovered what she had done, it shattered their relationship and sent her flying away.

Now, 25 years later, hearing that her parents are near death, she's returned for the first time to Liberty Falls, Idaho. Her Japanese mother has descended into the fog of Alzheimer's, and her proud father is struggling through the ravages of cancer and heart failure.

They're desperate for help, but so was Yumi once, and coming home scratches open old resentments on both sides. "People said I was the apple of Lloyd's eye, the pride of his heart," Yumi remembers, "until I went rotten." Returning to this conservative farm community from Hawaii with three children from three different fathers, she feels that old sense of condemnation immediately: "I was a random fruit in a field of genetically identical potatoes."

Cass, her best friend from middle school, has hung around, married a hardworking farmer, and gradually fallen into taking care of Yumi's parents. Now that their medical needs are so involved, though, she expects Yumi to shoulder that familial duty herself. But it's clear that Yumi has no aptitude for geriatric care. Or child care. Or even self-care. After a series of miscarriages, Cass has to swallow her resentment toward this old friend who treats her own kids so casually. The battle of love and candor between these two women is just one of many superbly drawn relationships in this novel.

Yumi's reckless life is a testament to the lingering effects of shattered affection. Having nursed her hatred for her father so long, it's not easy to nurse him. At first, they both see what they're convinced they'll see: a licentious woman determined to flaunt her offensive lifestyle and a Christian control freak full of condemnation.

Very gradually, though, Yumi is amazed to discover that her father has developed into someone far more complex. As potato farming fell by the wayside during her absence, her parents grew more and more involved in specialty seeds, running a mail-order business dedicated to preserving rare and antique plants amid the march of monoculture.

Just when Yumi can't imagine how she'll cope with her parents' medical needs (described here in graphic detail), a band of ecohippies arrives to worship her father. Calling themselves The Seeds of Resistance, this weird family of Internet-savvy Luddites has been drawn to Liberty Falls by her father's newsletter, a mixture of homespun wisdom, rants against genetic engineering, and quotations from the Bible. Rallying from his deathbed, he welcomes this strange crew with open arms. While Yumi falls back into old self-destructive habits, the Merry Green Pranksters and her Old Testament father plot to save the world.

Ozeki handles all this with a winning mixture of wit and tenderness. It's a jungle of a plot, a riot of literary species, sown with strains of deadly satire and heartrending tragedy - winding around kitchen table discussions about family duty and through the international debate on genetically modified food. She's as good with the broad comedy of wacky political protests as she is with the terrifying ramifications of genetic manipulation. She can skewer the industry's PR flaks in one chapter and serve as the midwife for long-deferred affection in the next. And she tends a thicket of metaphors about gardening, seeds, and biodiversity, describing the promiscuity of plants with as much frankness as the promiscuity of her characters.

But even after growing all over creation, Ozeki returns to her roots: the love between parents and children, a relationship beyond the sight of microscopes, more complex than any double helix, never susceptible to engineering, but always in need of careful cultivation like this.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments about the book section to charlesr@csmonitor.com.

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