Finally, a novelist — and a very good one at that — has taken a crack at the dark side of industrial agriculture. But, although the more nefarious practices of Big Ag aren’t much easier to swallow when fictionalized, this wry, sexy, politically timely novel offers more loveable characters than detestable ones, as a group of volunteer gardeners from the northeast U.S. take on the type of multinational company people love to hate.
When an American visiting a bazaar on the banks of the Amazon inadvertently buys some unusual seeds to plant back home, it will turn her Master Gardener program — and potentially the whole country’s food system — upside down. The imported food crops turn out to grow larger than average and, more significantly, keep the surrounding soil free of weeds. This threatens to make obsolete the flagship products of Bemis International, who, like its rival Monsanto, is making a fortune selling not only glyphosate, but glyphosate-resistant (or “Roundup Ready”) seeds to farmers, who can then spray the pesticide on their fields to kill weeds, but not crops. At the same time, another group of Master Gardeners is devising a bold (and comical) plan to save the milkweed, and thus, the endangered butterflies that feed on it. Recently retired lawyer-cum-Master Gardener Wylie Cypher (who fans will remember from Margenau’s previous book Public Information) joins the grassroots crusade and kicks off a series of events that will expose some of Bemis’s Draconian tactics, but with the burden of proof on the gardeners that they did not steal proprietary genetic engineering, their only hope of avoiding a lawsuit will be to return to the Peruvian Amazon and find similar plants growing naturally.
Sprinkled with satirical send-ups of recent conservative legislation, Master Gardener ends as tidily as a Shakespearean comedy, with matches made and justice served — but in surprising ways. It’s a satisfying conclusion after a fun 300 pages, and best of all, there’s room left for yet another adventure with Wylie.