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Summary and book reviews of Yellow Dirt by Judy Pasternak

Yellow Dirt

An American Story of a Poisoned Land and a People Betrayed

by Judy Pasternak

Yellow Dirt
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2010, 336 pages
    Paperback:
    Jul 2011, 336 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Stacey Brownlie

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About this Book

Book Summary

Yellow Dirt offers readers a window into a dark chapter of modern history that still reverberates today, weaving the personal and the political into a tale of betrayal, of willful negligence, and, ultimately, of reckoning.

Atop a craggy mesa in the northern reaches of the Navajo reservation lies what was once a world-class uranium mine called Monument No. 2. Discovered in the 1940s—during the government's desperate press to build nuclear weapons—the mesa's tremendous lode would forever change the lives of the hundreds of Native Americans who labored there and of their families, including many who dwelled in the valley below for generations afterward.

Yellow Dirt offers readers a window into a dark chapter of modern history that still reverberates today. From the 1940s into the early twenty-first century, the United States knowingly used and discarded an entire tribe for the sake of atomic bombs. Secretly, during the days of the Manhattan Project and then in a frenzy during the Cold War, the government bought up all the uranium that could be mined from the hundreds of rich deposits entombed under the sagebrush plains and sandstone cliffs. Despite warnings from physicians and scientists that long-term exposure could be harmful, even fatal, thousands of miners would work there unprotected. A second set of warnings emerged about the environmental impact. Yet even now, long after the uranium boom ended, and long after national security could be cited as a consideration, many residents are still surrounded by contaminated air, water, and soil. The radioactive "yellow dirt" has ended up in their drinking supplies, in their walls and floors, in their playgrounds, in their bread ovens, in their churches, and even in their garbage dumps. And they are still dying.

Transporting readers into a little-known country-within-a-country, award-winning journalist Judy Pasternak gives rare voice to Navajo perceptions of the world, their own complicated involvement with uranium mining, and their political coming-of-age. Along the way, their fates intertwine with decisions made in Washington, D.C., in the Navajo capital of Window Rock, and in the Western border towns where swashbuckling mining men trained their sights on the fortunes they could wrest from tribal land, successfully pressuring the government into letting them do it their way.

Yellow Dirt powerfully chronicles both a scandal of neglect and the Navajos' long fight for justice. Few had heard of this shameful legacy until Pasternak revealed it in a prize-winning Los Angeles Times series that galvanized a powerful congressman and a famous prosecutor to press for redress and repair of the grievous damage. In this expanded account, she provides gripping new details, weaving the personal and the political into a tale of betrayal, of willful negligence, and, ultimately, of reckoning.

Prologue
S-37, SOM, and SOQ

The white men first showed up in the summer of 1943. They came from the north, from Colorado, in teams of half a dozen each, hunkered down in trucks until the roads ran out. Then they switched to horses, riding into the silent reaches of the Navajo reservation, leaving their own country behind though they were still within its borders. They entered a place that seemed mystical and wild, where the residents spoke little or no English and only a few could write their names, where medicine men chanted and sifted colored sand, and witches were said to haunt the deep night along with coyotes and bears.

But, of course, to the Diné—The People, as the Navajos called themselves—it was the white men who were the curiosities. As summer became fall, and then the year turned, the white men kept showing up, staying for weeks at a time. The Diné kept an eye on the intruders, watching as one group took over a vacant cabin near a trading post. The ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Yellow Dirt is a work of the highest quality journalism, an exposé made possible by meticulous research... She has taken a large cast of characters, a bulging list of corporations and government agencies, and a scientific subject and managed to unite them in a story that the average reader can comprehend... This book is a solemn reminder of what harm can result when governments act in haste and fear and business decisions are based solely on profit. The "American story" of Yellow Dirt is a piece of recent history that could not be more relevant today.   (Reviewed by Stacey Brownlie).

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Media Reviews

Los Angeles Times

Studded with vivid character sketches and evocative descriptions of the American landscape, Pasternak's scarifying account of uranium mining's disastrous consequences often reads like a novel...does justice to the ethical and historical ambiguities while crafting a narrative of exemplary clarity.

The Christian Science Monitor

This book will break your heart. Not only an enormous achievement – literally, a piece of groundbreaking investigative journalism – it also illustrates exactly what careful, painstaking, and risk-taking reporting should do: Show us what we’ve become as a people, and sharpen our vision of who we, the people, ought to become.

Laura Miller, Salon

Chilling. Has the cumulative power of scrupulous truth-telling and the value of old-style investigative reportage.

Shelf Awareness

An important and unsettling study that is both an indictment of past mining and workplace-safety practices and a grave warning for future disruptions of fragile ecologies.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. With nuclear power once more being discussed as a solution to America’s energy problems, Pasternak’s portrait of a devastated community and callous governmental indifference is crucial reading.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. Disturbing and well-documented - and hopefully effective.

The Washington Post

Disturbing and illuminating. Pasternak evokes the magnitude of a nuclear disaster that continues to reverberate. Unfolds like true crime, where real-life heroes and villains play dynamic roles in a drama that escalates page by page. Eye-opening and riveting, "Yellow Dirt" gives a sobering glimpse into our atomic past and adds a critical voice to the debate about resurrecting America's nuclear industry.

Author Blurb Michael Connelly, author of Nine Dragons
This book is a masterwork. It is journalism at its very best—a story told fully and eloquently. A story that everyone should know.

Author Blurb Richard White, Pulitzer Prize finalist, Recipient of a Macarthur Fellowship, and Margaret Byrne Professor of American History, Stanford University
This compelling and compassionate book could not be more timely. A gripping story of the betrayal of the Navajos, it comes at a time where once again the human costs of energy production are slighted and both the government and corporations ride roughshod over the least powerful.

Reader Reviews

Tammy Morales

I never knew and I lived in the outskirts Gallop, NM a short while.
When I read this book. It haunted me about the short time I resided there among some of the proudest people I've ever came across. Now I know why the chief kept pointing at a particular area and called the mountains, ' Fire Mountain.' I stayed with a...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

The Navajo Nation

The Navajo Nation is a semi-autonomous political and cultural entity within the United States which covers northeastern Arizona, northwestern New Mexico and parts of southeastern Utah. This is part of the area known as the Four Corners region, where the borders of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah meet, which became USA territory in 1848 after the Mexican American War. At about 26,000 square miles it is the largest land area assigned primarily to a Native American jurisdiction in the USA, and larger than 10 of the 50 states. The Navajo people refer to themselves as Diné ("the people"); Navajo is a Spanish word. The center of government for Diné Bikéyah (Navajoland) is in Window Rock, Arizona.

The basis of ...

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