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Cass Unger - The Potato

Calliope's picture

In the novel All Over Creation by Ruth Ozeki, Cass Unger Quinn begins by having to play a potato in the school Thanksgiving pageant and ultimately develops her identity as a potato as well as negative body image. From her childhood to her adult life, Cass has been surrounded by potatoes and they influenced her identity. Throughout the novel, she consistently returns to the idea of her as a potato and it plagues her mind. Her similarities with the potato are also even more accented when placed next to Yumi.

Throughout the novel, parallels can be drawn between Cass and the potatoes that she helps to farm. Beginning in elementary school when she actually becomes a potato, being a potato becomes part of her identity. “Cassie had started out as a pea. Up through the third grade she was content in this role, but by the time she got to fourth, she had gained so much weight that they made her a potato. She said it was fine, said she really didn’t mind – that’s just the kind of girl she was – but inside she minded a lot” (7). Soft spoken and shy, she “said it was fine” while she really “minded a lot.” This is because, “everyone knew that the side dishes were typecast … what is a potato? A potato is a fat, round, dumpy white thing, wrapped in burlap, rolling around on a dirty stage” (7). Her description of the potato as a “fat, round dumpy white thing” seems to be a reflection of herself, especially when compared to Yumi as the Indian princess. “As Cass recalled it, Yummy was always the Indian princess, even in first grade, when everybody else in their class was still playing gravy … Tall and slim, wearing love beads, a buckskin miniskirt, and a headband with a jaunty hawk feather stick in the back … Yummy made a luscious ambassador” (7-8). Cass describes herself as “a dumpy white thing” while Yummy is “a luscious ambassador.”  When they meet again, Cass questions Yumi, “I envied you, you know. I was always the potato … Yummy, do you know what it’s like to go through life as a side dish?”  (64-65). She is quite obviously still feeling the effect of being a potato even while she may not acknowledge it.

Cass remains defensive about her past role as a potato because she has negative body image problems which contribute to her feeling like a potato. When Will comments on her role, she shuts him down immediately. “’What’s that one?’ It was a group photo, taken at school after the last Thanksgiving pageant. ‘Are you in it?’ Will asked. Cass nodded. He narrowed his eyes, held the photo closer. ‘Which one is you?’ She pointed to the edge, where she was standing amid the side dishes. Will laughed. ‘Well don’t you make the cutest, plumpest little-‘ ‘Don’t’ Cass warned (35). She is already insecure about her body because she has had cancer and a mastectomy. Even the smallest comments about her as a child hurt. She thinks about her identity as a potato very often, "Cass pulled away and went back to her picking. Resignation. Too many years spent as a potato" (9). While many people would have tried to forget their embarrassing childhood memories, Cass thinks things such as, “too many years spent as a potato” very often. She continues to compare herself to a potato, an example of her negative body image and also of her parallels with potatoes.

Just like the potatoes that she farms, Cass is also full of GMOs, chemicals, and is infertile. The chemicals help the companies maintain their profits because famers have to continue to buy seeds rather than letting the potatoes grow unchecked. The GMOs and other miscellaneous chemicals cause the potatoes to be unnatural and unhealthy as well as infertile. Cass has been connected to potatoes her whole life, from being a potato in the Thanksgiving pageant to marrying Will, a potato farmer, to working on a potato farm daily. Another result of the dangerous chemicals in her system is shown through her being a two-time cancer survivor. She had to get surgeries, for example a mastectomy as a precaution when she realized that she had cancer which also contributes to her negative body image. Just like the potatoes, Cass has been genetically modified.

Another instance where Ozeki compares people to plants is when Yumi’s children are compared to plants as well, by Momoko. “She picked one up and studied it, turning it over in her crooked hands. ‘Maybe is a little bit zuke and a little bit Delicata, and a little bit … whatchamacallit. Sweet Pumpkin.’ She handed it back and pointed to Ocean and Phoenix, who were fixated on the screen. “Like them. All mixed up’” (118). She is looking at squash, trying to identify which kind and she sees that the squash is not a pure bred squash. She believes that Yumi’s kids are the same, “mixed up” like the squash because they are all different races. Yumi translates what she says, “She said the squashes were promiscuous” (118). This could also be implying that Yumi was a squash and she ‘bred’ with too many different people and so her kids ended up as crossbreeds.

Later, during a rally at Cass and Will’s farm, Ocean, one of Yumi’s children, plays a seed in a play. She later confesses, “they wanted to make me a potato at first, but I said I couldn’t make up as good a dance as a potato … I mean, a potato just rolls around on the floor, right? That’s not a sacred dance of life” (290). Ocean is only seven and yet even she thinks that a potato is a pretty useless plant. By this logic, Ozeki could be suggesting that Cass being similar to the potato means she is useless and a “side dish,” however, I didn’t view Cass that way. Cass was a stable character and Ozeki could be referring to the stability of the potato. The potato is a staple and is a necessary component for many dishes. I think Cass is the same way, she helps her husband, Yumi, Yumi’s parents, and the seeds but she does it subtly and quietly on the side.


Works Cited:

Ozeki, Ruth L. All Over Creation. New York: Viking, 2003. Print.




Anne Dalke's picture


Thank you for organizing your e-portfolio! Now I can so much more easily find what I’m looking for, when I’m reviewing your work each week.

You’ve really thickened this revision of your paper, too, with a number of striking quotes that help to develop your idea (though still missing is the passage where Cass tells Yumi that she suspects her cancer and infertility are the result of their applications of pesticides on the farm).

I had nudged you, last week, to develop your listing of such quotes from a collective description into an argument. I’d like to talk in conference about whether/if/how that happened. It seems, at the end of the first paragraph, that your thesis is that Cass’s “similarities with the potato are even more accented when placed next to Yumi,” but you only develop that comparison in the next paragraph, not throughout the essay.

At my suggestion, you added Momoko’s comparison of crossbred squash to her “all mixed up” grandchildren, but you don’t really work that into the argument of your paper; can you develop the notion that crossbreeding is a form of genetic modification….? If not, that paragraph probably needs to come out.

You move next to the nice addition of Ocean’s decision not to be a potato, which “just rolls around on the floor,” unable to perform “ a sacred dance of life.” But then you refuse that reading, ending your paper with your “own views” of Cass, as stable, necessary, helpful, subtle and quiet—a staple like the potato. But what is the source of those views? Where do you find evidence for them (for the “subtle quietude” of the potato?) in the novel?

Let’s talk, too, about passive voice. Can you re-work this sentence for our conference? “Throughout the novel, parallels can be drawn between Cass and the potatoes that she helps to farm.” Can you tighten this one, too? “Another instance where Ozeki compares people to plants is when Yumi’s children are compared to plants as well, by Momoko.”