Ruth Ozeki’s novel All Over Creation is a book about juxtaposition, parallels, and intersections. While this may be said about many great novels, Ozeki uniquely brings to life contrasting narratives of social and environmental issues for the purpose of helping herself and her readers “interrogate” worldly issues instead of pushing a predetermined opinion (Ozeki 2016). Out in the fields, Ozeki develops the novel’s primary debate as a struggle between agribusiness-supported genetically modified crops and environmental activists. Although any form of agriculture is human intervention in nature, this debate can be characterized as “natural” methods coming in contact with explicit human-engineered farming.
Meanwhile, in the homes of Liberty Falls, Idaho, Ozeki layers another classic conflict between nature and nurture using the characters Yumi Fuller and Cass Unger Quinn and their respective relationships with children. A mother of three children by different fathers, Yumi does not seem to show a lot of obvious love or support toward to her kids. Her best friend Cass, however, eagerly and lovingly takes care of Yumi’s infant Poo and assists with raising and supervising the older kids despite her own struggles to become pregnant. Cass’s desperation for motherhood and her infertility contrasts Yumi’s verging on indifferent parenting and prolificacy. If Ozeki is truly writing a “thought experiment” to “explore a question… with an open mind,” what does the novel uncover through this juxtaposition (Ozeki 2016)?
As parent figures, Cass is everything that Yumi is not. Cass represents stability and consistency, living in the same home for all her life while Yumi traversed the west coast to the pacific. She is trustworthy and predictable, taking over the child care when Yumi’s emotional impulses divert her from her maternal responsibilities. While Yumi is single parenting three kids, each from a different partner (which is especially unconventional in rural Idaho), Cass’s faithful marriage to Will Quinn is part of what she hopes will become a traditional nuclear family. But this desire is where Yumi has something that Cass lacks. Years of exposure to chemical inputs likely contributed to her cancer and infertility. In a classic character foil, Yumi is is a mother by nature and Cass is motherly by nurturing, each lacking somehow in the other department.
In this juxtaposition, it appears to me that Ozeki was also questioning issues of parenting, or more specifically motherhood, while writing this novel. This isn’t a biological or psychological twin study but Ozeki has set up an experiment nonetheless. Cass and Yumi are tests of how much genetic relation matters and how much of parenting is simply being caring. As these two motherly characters develop throughout the novel, it is tempting to conclude that nurturing is the most important part of being a parent because Cass’s love, care, and attention toward her best friend’s kids fills an obvious gap caused by Yumi’s neglectful or self-centered actions (such as leaving the kids to meet up with Elliot). This takeaway is siding with Cass when she expresses rightful parenthood as function of nurturing: “You know, what Yummy? Sometimes I think you don't deserve those kids of yours. Sometimes I just want to snatch them away” (323). Furthermore, the merit of parenthood based on genetics is undermined by the fact that none of Yumi’s children’s fathers are present. But Ozeki realizes that it is not that simple; Cass is not a flawless character. Her primary fault is that she cares so deeply about becoming a mother for a child that she forgets she is not the only one involved. A couple occasions illustrate her trying to erase history, such as her attempt to steal Poo away to Canada and pretend he was hers, or maybe even her desire to change the name of an internationally adopted child to a typical English one. From these instances it is clear that Cass believes her care in the present is enough to be a successful mother to the kids. What she occludes about the truth, however, is concerning.
Despite these faults in both characters, Ozeki leaves the reader feeling confident in each of them by the end of the novel. As Cass reads “Daddy Frankie’s” letter out loud to Tibet, we know she will love the child more than anything else in the world without erasing Tibet’s biological parents from her life (417). We also get the sense that Yumi will be more intentional about parenting after considering the way she interacts with her kids after Phoenix considers running away. “Mostly I felt overwhelmed with gratitude. How had this happened, that I had raised up a son into the world who could actually think about his decisions before he made them?” narrates Yumi (407). In this self-aware moment she recognizes that she has not always modeled good behavior for her kids, and once she sees that her son is capable of being mature she realizes she should reflect maturity as well. When nature and nurture are reconciled for both characters, they become better mothers for their children.
Although Ozeki’s assertion that her writing is not agenda-driven fiction makes it impossible to say what message she intended to communicate to the reader, this train of thought could reflect the realization she came to about the nature v.s. nurture elements of motherhood by writing All Over Creation. Or it could just be my interpretation of this issue. Reconciliation of two extreme philosophies is in no way a groundbreaking conclusion, but through Ozeki’s novel, I learned that in our modern world natural processes and human interventions are inextricably tied together, and a lot of times that can be a great thing.
Ozeki, Ruth. All Over Creation. New York, NY: Penguin, 2004. Print.
Ozeki, Ruth. Interview by Catherine Meeks. ASLE. ASLE News, Spring 2013. Web. 5 Nov. 2016.