Yellowcake: A Novel
by Ann Cummins
A Tale of the Mess Their Elders Left Behind
A review by Yvonne Zipp
Radiation poisoning doesn't automatically spring to mind when one
says the words "family drama." (Postapocalyptic science fiction? Sure.
Episodes of 24? Yep. Graphic novels about superheroes? Absolutely.)
But Ann Cummins (Red Ant House) isn't using radiation to mutate her
characters or get readers' adrenalin going. In her smart, deftly
written Southwestern novel, the poisoning happened decades ago: In the
1950s and '60s, Navajo families were hired to work the uranium mill at
Shiprock, N.M., raking yellowcake, as one character puts it, "in open
pans. Steam heated pans."
It's 1991, and family members are seeking
compensation for their loved ones' broken health. As far as Ryland
Mahoney, former mill supervisor, is concerned, they can do it without
his help. He's not about to make the lawyers rich. Despite years of
health problems that have left him attached to an oxygen tank, Ryland
maintains that to sue now would just be greedy and ungrateful. After
all, nobody had to take the jobs. "The thing is, it hadn't been a bad
life. They'd done OK."
His wife, Rosy, who faces widowhood and a
poverty-stricken old age, thanks to medical expenses, would not agree.
Nor would Becky Atcitty. Her dad, a Navajo who used to be able to run a
marathon in three hours, can now barely stumble out to his hogan in the
backyard and will not see his 50th birthday.
So when Becky shows up at the Mahoneys'
door at the opening of the novel, Rosy joins the compensation effort.
Ryland's daughter Maggie, who's getting married in a month, is already
involved, working for an environmental group in the area. "She'll
huddle up with Rosy, giving her all kinds of things to read about
radiation poisoning and whatnot. He tells her she ought to thank the
nuclear industry. His generation got paid to make a mess, hers gets
paid to clean it up. Everybody wins."
Ryland's intense desire to leave well
enough alone stems at least partly from unspoken guilt. His touchstone
is Sam Behan, a childhood friend, whom Ryland helped to get a job at
the mill in 1957. Ryland has pictures of Sam climbing on the tailings
pile, planting grass, and installing sprinklers in an effort to placate
"You could see it on Sam. His hair, his eyelashes and eyebrows, normally white-blond, turned pink on a windy day." As long
as Sam isn't sick, Ryland figures, it's not his fault.
jumps ably between Ryland; Becky; Sam, an alcoholic reprobate who now
gets cash under the table tying flies for Florida sport fishermen; his
ex-wife and Rosy's sister, Lily, who's just now moving on with her
life; and Delmar, Sam's son and Becky's cousin, an ex-con who's midway
through his parole. Cummins shows tremendous affection and
understanding for even the most ornery, and she effortlessly passes
that empathy on to readers.
Yellowcake is a novel where what happens
matters less than how the characters react to it. There are
preparations for a wedding and a funeral; Becky has a chance at
romance; Delmar gets a job. Sam returns for the first time in 17 years,
proving as explosive as uranium, if less deadly.
Despite the everpresent prospect of
tragedy, Cummins somehow sneaks in plenty of humor, both ribald and
otherwise. In what may be an off-putting trait for some readers, she
also writes as vividly about life with a terminal illness as she does
about the land and Navajo people around Farmington, N.M.
For example, here's what it takes for
Ryland to answer the telephone: "It takes Ryland exactly 22 rings to
get out of bed, to get his slippers and robe on, to get the portable
oxygen tank rolling. He takes his time getting to the kitchen to answer
because he knows Sam won't hang up. Drunk or not, when Sam wants to
talk, he's a patient man."
All the characters are grappling, in ways
both messy and realistic, with personal responsibility and obligations
to family and the past, but perhaps none more than Becky. A loan
officer who gave up her apartment and moved back home to help her
mother take care of her dad, she is caught between two cultures: Her
mother, a Navajo who was adopted into a white family, is a devout
Christian. Her grandmother, who has a farm on the reservation, refuses
to speak English and will kidnap Becky's father's body if that's what
it takes to give him a Navajo funeral.
Meanwhile, Becky must decide between two
suitors a Dallas businessman who's courting her for a business
opportunity that would help erase some of her parents' medical debts,
and Harrison Zahnee, who teaches Navajo at the Farmington community
Cummins dodges an amazing number of
pitfalls in her first novel. Yellowcake manages to avoid being
preachy, depressing, melodramatic, or sanctimonious about either the
environment or its native American characters. It deserves a half-life
at least as long as its eponymous element.
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.
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