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Yellow Dirt: An American Story of a Poisoned Land and a People Betrayed Hardcover – September 21, 2010

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

In the 1940s, when the U.S. government was embarking on developing atomic weapons, it discovered huge uranium deposits in Navajo territory covering parts of Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona. Mines constructed there yielded uranium that would be used in the Manhattan Project and eventually in the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Navajo themselves saw little of the huge profits from uranium but as workers and land dwellers would suffer radiation exposure four times that of the Japanese targeted by the A-bomb. Award-winning environmental journalist Pasternak follows four generations of Navajo families, from the patriarch who warned against violating the land to those tempted by the prospects of jobs and money. She chronicles the cultural stoicism that prohibited them from complaining for so long about the alarming rates of cancer deaths, the betrayal of trust by corporate and government interests, the growing awareness of the tragedy visited on them in the name of national security, and the efforts to fight for restoration. A stunning look at a shameful chapter in American history with long-lasting implications for all Americans concerned with environmental justice. --Vanessa Bush


"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."--The Christian Science Monitor

"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 justic to the ethical and historial ambiguities while crafting a narrative of exemplary clarity."--Los Angeles Times

"Chilling. Has the cumulative power of scrupulous truth-telling and the value of old-style investigative reportage."--Laura Miller, Salon

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

“One of those stories that makes us believe all over again in journalism, in its power to bring truth to light.” —Harvard’s Nieman Narrative Digest

“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.”
—Richard White, Pulitzer Prize finalist, Recipient of a Macarthur Fellowship, and Margaret Byrne Professor of American History, Stanford University

"An astounding book. Judy Pasternak has dug deeply into the archives and into the ground itself to uncover the real story behind one of the darkest chapters of the Cold War on American soil. With her dogged pursuit of the facts and an elegant prose style, Pasternak elevates investigative journalism into the realm of literature." -- Tom Zoellner, author of Uranium: War, Energy and the Rock that Shaped the World

"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."--The Washington Post

"A window into a dark chapter of modern history that still reverberates today.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. 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."--Stacy Rae Brownlie, BookBrowse

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press; 1St Edition edition (September 21, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1416594825
  • ISBN-13: 978-1416594826
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (28 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #645,461 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Judy Pasternak is a non-fiction writer in Washington DC. For 24 years, she was a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, covering topics as varied as al Qaeda's private airline, the impact of gangs on a Watts middle school, a band of bank-robbing right-wing extremists, and the giant black hole at the middle of the Milky Way. Her beats in LA included Malibu, smog and science; she was also a Chicago-based national correspondent for the paper and a member of the national investigative team in DC.

Her 2006 series about the environmental devastation wrought by uranium mining on the Navajo homeland won numerous national journalism awards, prompted a Congressional hearing and led to a five-year federal cleanup plan.

She expanded that series, framing the story with a four-generation family saga, for her first book. Yellow Dirt won the 2009 J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award and was selected as one of the Best Books of 2010 by both the Christian Science Monitor and Publishers Weekly.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

23 of 25 people found the following review helpful By Jim Hayes on September 21, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Judy Pasternak's "Yellow Dirt" is a must-buy, must-read and sure-to-pass-on book. It is certain to make the top non-fiction lists and should be a Pulitzer Prize candidate. The book is an outgrowth of a series of four articles published by the Los Angeles Times in 2006, when the author was one of that newspaper's top investigative reporters. It is the engrossing and frightening story of what happened to four generations of Navajo men, women and children who fell victim to cancer-causing radiation poisoning when remote corners of their reservation were mined for uranium. What the Navajo called "yellow dirt" was the explosive ingredient for the two atomic bombs that killed hundreds of thousands of Japanese at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Later, the Indian miners and their families continued to die of cancer, pawns in the international chess game of the Cold War. When the policy became "atoms for peace," more Navajos were killed as their ancestral lands were exploited to fuel nuclear power plants. For decades, the plight of the stoic Native Americans was shunted aside, ignored and even covered up by state and federal officials. Bureaucratic negligence and the misdeeds of the mining corporations that plundered tribal resources is presented by the writer in readable, compelling prose. Much of the narrative comes from Pasternak's painstaking interviews with the usually reticent Navajo miners and their families. Copious end notes and bibliography provide evidence of her diligent research--and a case study of investigative journalism at its best. Yellow Dirt: An American Story of a Poisoned Land and a People Betrayed
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful By samkatvic on October 9, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Only once in a great while comes along the combination of a compelling story, exquisite writing, and substantial research so lacking in these days of internet journalism. "Yellow Dirt" is the true story of the exploitation and abandonment of the Navajo people in the United States' quest to fuel their nuclear arsenal. Judy Pasternak, former report for the Los Angeles Times, has filled the book with facts and timelines, but always in the context of the families and their lives that she came to know so well. You feel as though you are standing among them, feeling their pride, their anger, and their anguish. This story is in the hands of a very capable journalist, and the craftsmanship is evident on every page, but what makes this book unique is you feel her heart was in every carefully chosen word. YOU MUST BUY THIS BOOK, devour it in one sitting, and pass it on to someone else, with the strict instructions to do the same.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Mike B on February 27, 2011
Format: Hardcover
A penetrating study of what happened to the Navajo people when they started to mine Uranium in the early 1940's.

This occurred on the Navajo reservation that is located in Arizona and Utah. A great deal of the mining was in Monument Valley. The initial reason for extracting the Uranium was the real fear that the enemies of democracy, particularly Nazi Germany, would also start to process Uranium for the purposes of making a nuclear explosion. In the early 1940's little was known of the affects of radiation from exposure to Uranium. There was no effort to protect the Navajo workers. The debris from the mines was dumped pell-mell all over the reservation. Some of the debris was utilized to build homes on the reserve. The water sources were also becoming contaminated by the dynamiting at the mine sites.

After the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki the affects of radiation became very obvious. But on Navajo land nothing at all was done to protect the workers. With the advent of the Cold War and the Korean War Uranium mining kept accelerating in Navajo country.

Eventually workers started dying of cancer (lung cancer, colon cancer, brain tumours). More and more women and children became diagnosed with cancer and died prematurely. Tests and studies were made on people, on the drinking water, and the habitats - some of which showed severe levels of radiation. The radiation was literally spreading more and more across their land. And nothing was done! The companies and the managers got rich. The Navajo's got hardly anything, particularly compared to miners off the reservation.

Both the companies and the various government organizations (and there are many) obfuscated the issues and "Passed the Buck" as people continued to get sick and die.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on June 17, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The book itself is organized somewhat poorly, the writing is slightly awkward, and it feels like crucial information is missing. Now once you get pass all of the books apparent faults, what you are left with is a really important story. The bottom line of this story is that in the name of fighting the Cold War and the Arms Race we had to sacrifice the lives and land of many humans; young ones and old ones too. Was it overkill?, was it racial?, was it greed?, read the book and decide for yourself!, but for me the trail of tears continues, just differently. Also check out: The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Bookreporter on September 27, 2010
Format: Hardcover
If you thought the conquest and, indeed, the genocide of Native Americans in the western US ceased sometime around the turn of the last century, YELLOW DIRT will enlighten your ignorance. In the Four Corners region of the Southwest, an area encompassing the tribal lands of the Navajo and Hopi, there is a nearly perpetual reminder of the white man's footprint on Indian Territory --- the glowing poison of radioactivity.

Defeated by whites in battle, tricked with useless treaties, and then for two generations dominated, out-maneuvered and deceived again and again by their supposed advocate, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Navajo thought they had finally gotten a bit of their own back when they were offered a chance to work in the uranium mines that proliferated on their land in the early 1940s in response to the war effort. Their willingness to work hard was evidence of their patriotism, but after the war was over, no one (including the US government, which was the sole client for the products of the mines) thought to warn them of the risks of the abandoned mines. Instead, they were allowed to mine the mines again for stones and wood to build houses where they slept in peace, little knowing that the very walls around them would bring disease, death and --- perhaps the worst --- crippling disabilities, generation after generation.

Focusing on a family who has occupied a large swath of the land where the mines were opened, writer Judy Pasternak composed this book by exploring the region and staying among the family. She saw the ravages of neuropathy that cruelly afflicts many Indian children and heard tales of those who died from cancers, primarily of the lung.
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