BookBrowse Reviews Yellowcake by Ann Cummins

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Yellowcake

A Novel

by Ann Cummins

Yellowcake by Ann Cummins X
Yellowcake by Ann Cummins
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2007, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2008, 320 pages

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Cummins brilliantly conflates the insidious damage wrought by radiation sickness with the maladies of the soul caused by prejudice, poverty, nature's abuse, and love's betrayal

The setting is the American Southwest in the area known as the Four Corners (where Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah meet). The year is 1991; it's been at least twenty years since most of the uranium mines and mills on the Colorado Plateau closed, taking with them employment for both local "Anglos" and Navajos, but the effects of the industry are still being felt - physically, emotionally and spiritually.

Ryland Mahoney, a former foreman at the uranium mine, is now dependent on an oxygen tank, and worries that he won't be strong enough to give away his daughter at her impending wedding, but he refuses to connect his former employment with his current health. Woody Atcitty, a Navajo, is seriously ill with cancer, and Woody's daughter and Ryland's wife are part of a group demanding compensation from the mining company. Sam, who worked with Ryland in the mill and breathed in the same radioactive dust, seems healthy enough but has other problems to deal with - a divorce that was apparently never finalized and a son just out of prison.

Yellowcake is a multigenerational saga told from five different viewpoints. Cummins is far more interested in exploring her characters' complex lives and emotions than she is on writing a polemic on the uranium industry. Having said that, she does have a personal interest in the subject. She grew up in the Colorado Plateau area and her father (now dead, after a nine-year illness) was a mill worker at a uranium mine on the Navajo reservation, where Cummins lived and attended school for nine years. Her initial intent was to write a story based on her parents' marriage with the uranium industry for the plot, but she found her characters developed lives of their own and soon matured into wholly unique people. At the suggestion of her editor, she broadened the story's point of view to include other characters, allowing her to take the story out of the sick room and into the broader landscape.

The result is a novel that is both compassionate and wise, that not only explores the legacy of radiation sickness but also illness and aging, and the misunderstandings that can arise between generations and cultures.

Ann Cummins is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University and University of Arizona writing programs, and the author of the short story collection Red Ant House, a San Francisco Chronicle bestseller and Best Book of the Year. She has had her stories published in The New Yorker, McSweeney's, Quarterly West, and the Sonora Review, among other publications, as well as The Best American Short Stories 2002. She divides her time between Oakland, California, where she lives with her husband, and Flagstaff, Arizona, where she teaches creative writing at Northern Arizona University.

This review was originally published in March 2007, and has been updated for the April 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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