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Yellowcake

A Novel

by Ann Cummins

reviewed by Sherry Simpson

Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007. $24, 320 pages.



Review published in the November/December 2007 issue of Orion magazine



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Long after the uranium mill has closed, ex-foreman Ryland Mahoney discovers that suffering from radiation poisoning is a lot like working in the mill—a gritty task, undertaken in ignorance and riddled with unintended consequences.

Not that Ryland blames uranium mining for his poor health. But his wife, Rosy, does. So does Becky Atcitty. Her father, a Navajo millworker who once ran marathons, is dying of lung cancer. Becky and Rose join organizers seeking compensation for damages caused by extracting “yellowcake” from crushed ore.

Kinds of damage and forms of compensation propel this engaging debut novel by Ann Cummins. She avoids cheap rhetoric and easy judgments about a local environmental catastrophe to consider instead its lingering effects on the tangled lives of the Mahoneys and the Atcittys. “Hell, we’re all sick one way or another,” observes Ryland’s former brother-in-law, Sam Behan.

Sam escaped health problems despite years in the mill, but he’s slowly poisoning himself with alcohol and an inability to face the pain he created by fathering Delmar Atcitty in an extramarital affair. Sam’s visit precipitates an accounting of responsibility by nearly every character. They’re rarely sure what they want, and they’re afraid to look back and see what’s gaining on them. Becky Atcitty can’t speak her own Diné tongue, but almost everyone here struggles for the language to explain bad choices, wrong turns, and irretrievable losses.

This populous novel reads much like an overlapping series of short stories, as characters emerge and complications unfold in precise, delicate forms. Not every character enjoys the author’s expansive attention, but Cummins spares all of them (and us) sentimentality through keen writing and compassionate restraint.

She also sidesteps pointless breast-beating about various ravages inflicted on southwestern environments and cultures. These characters avoid miring themselves in the past by taking hesitant steps forward, whether beginning new relationships, making tough choices, or deciding to survive one more day. Still, nobody pretends that questions don’t remain. As Ryland muses, “He just wishes somebody would tell him if he is or if he isn’t. Responsible. He can’t seem to figure it out on his own.” Few of us can.