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Yellowcake Hardcover – March 15, 2007


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 1 edition (March 15, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0618269266
  • ISBN-13: 978-0618269266
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,990,111 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* At the frenzied inception of the nuclear age, miners were exposed to the deadly uranium concentrate known as yellowcake, and suffered accordingly. Cummins, author of a highly praised short story collection, Red Ant House (2003), is the daughter of a uranium mill worker and grew up in Shiprock, New Mexico, on a Navajo reservation. This world inspired her tensile and many-valenced first novel. Surefooted in her leaps between the psyches of her sympathetic characters, Cummins begins with Ryland, once a foreman at a uranium mine, now dependent on an oxygen tank and worried about being strong enough to give his daughter away at her wedding. Woody, a Navajo and a pal of Ryland's, is also gravely ill. Woody's daughter and Ryland's wife join an activist group demanding compensation from the mining company. Meanwhile, Ryland's fellow yellowcaker, former brother-in-law, and all-around wild man Sam seems healthy, but he has plenty of other problems. By fusing suspenseful love entanglements with family angst, Native American concerns, grief over the poisoning of the land, penetrating compassion, and ironic humor, 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. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

Review

The plot of Ann Cummins's first novel, Yellowcake, seems to suggest that we're in for a pretty shrill experience: Native Americans dying from chemical exposure at a shuttered uranium mine. Regardless of your politics, that looks like a beam of white guilt that will irradiate all subtlety. Discovering that Cummins delivers something far more nuanced is just one of many surprises in this rich and touching story.


Yellowcake is the powdery substance produced while milling uranium ore, but it's also a compromise between chocolate and vanilla cake. Both definitions show up in these pages, which suggests something about the novel's ability to span industrial and domestic concerns. Cummins grew up in Shiprock, N.M., where her father was a mill worker, and she demonstrates an intimate familiarity with the labor and the laborers -- Navajo and Anglo -- who toiled away in this dangerous business.


The story opens decades after environmental warnings closed the uranium mine on a Navajo reservation in New Mexico. Ryland Mahoney, who was a manager when the mill shut down, is looking forward to his daughter's marriage in a few weeks, but he's being pulled back into the past. With every breath, the oxygen tank he drags along reminds him of the mining chemicals that may have compromised his lungs. And then there's the arrival of Becky Atcitty, the daughter of a Navajo worker who's dying of cancer. Becky wants him to help a group of ex-employees sue the government for compensation for their medical problems. But joining that crusade would involve admitting that he poisoned his friends and coworkers, that he poisoned himself, that he's dying. Why spoil the wedding festivities with all that, and besides, who's to say what was really responsible? "Maybe it was the uranium exposure. Maybe it was something else, like cigarettes," Ryland thinks. "As far as I'm concerned, half the people creating a stir want compensation for getting old. We're not young. Things go wrong."


There's a showdown set up here, a la "Erin Brockovich," but Cummins never lets that take over the novel. While the workers' protest rumbles away in the background, she's more interested in the small personal dramas among these characters -- conflicts of life and death, love and disappointment, that no court could ever sort out. The central relationship is the long marriage between Ryland and his super-competent wife, who's trying to manage his illness without turning him into a child. There's nothing romantic about dying from lung failure, and Cummins portrays that struggle with clear-eyed realism, but she's also attentive to all the other moments of comedy and romance that keep right on flowing between two people in love.


And she's particularly sensitive to the quandary of young Navajo men and women who hover in the cloudy atmosphere of assimilation, enjoying the benefits of modern life but still aware of the riches of their parents' traditions. Becky wants to help her dying father, but she's reminded again and again that she can't even speak his language. The medicine men her father consults can't supply the technical records she needs to pursue his case in court, but is it worth violating his faith to confirm her own beliefs? Watching her grandmother pray, "she feels entirely foreign, out of place."


Many likable people move through this novel, but my favorite subplot involves Delmar, the "crossbreed" son of Ryland's best friend. Recently released from prison for stealing cars, Delmar is trying to stay out of trouble, even as he thinks about "what a bummer the straight and narrow is." The humiliation of weekly drug tests and picking up after rich white folks would be enough to test anyone's resolve, but he just might have enough determination and humor to make it. The chapters that show him struggling to stay clean are marvels of insight and sympathy.


Cummins, who teaches creative writing at Northern Arizona University, published a well-received collection of short stories called Red Ant House in 2003. In some ways, Yellowcake is a collection of stories, too, but she's knit them together to reflect the messiness and continuity of real life, a marvelous blending of crises and blessings and a fair share of wondering and worrying. In the end, Cummins rather bravely leaves all her loose ends loose -- none of that Anglo obsession with closure. That could have been frustrating, but here the effect is poignant. It leaves space that you can't help but fill with your own hopes for these tender, resilient people. 

(The Washington Post )

*Starred Review* At the frenzied inception of the nuclear age, miners were exposed to the deadly uranium concentrate known as yellowcake, and suffered accordingly. Cummins, author of a highly praised short story collection, Red Ant House (2003), is the daughter of a uranium mill worker and grew up in Shiprock, New Mexico, on a Navajo reservation. This world inspired her tensile and many-valenced first novel. Surefooted in her leaps between the psyches of her sympathetic characters, Cummins begins with Ryland, once a foreman at a uranium mine, now dependent on an oxygen tank and worried about being strong enough to give his daughter away at her wedding. Woody, a Navajo and a pal of Ryland's, is also gravely ill. Woody's daughter and Ryland's wife join an activist group demanding compensation from the mining company. Meanwhile, Ryland's fellow yellowcaker, former brother-in-law, and all-around wild man Sam seems healthy, but he has plenty of other problems. By fusing suspenseful love entanglements with family angst, Native American concerns, grief over the poisoning of the land, penetrating compassion, and ironic humor, 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.
(Booklist -Donna Seaman ) --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

It's better to wish a book wouldn't end than to be irritated by the way it actually doesn't.
Booksvixen
I found myself completely invested in the characters, even the ones who were doing things I would otherwise consider despicable.
Ashley Cowger
The characters were well developed and richly diverse, especially the half Navajo hero who holds the story together.
Native Son

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By S. Stone on March 31, 2007
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I flat-out love this novel. The review in the Washington Post, which described the "marvels of insight and sympathy" in Ann Cummins's perceptions and character depiction, seems to get at what makes it so great -- that the book should have such a gripping set of intertwined plots, all beautifully balanced, along with wonderful writing, urgent human questions, and believable characters.

It's a wonder to have so many vivid people in this novel, all completely distinct and all seen with a mixture of clarity and compassion. Ann Cummins seems to understand people of all different ages, genders, backgrounds, celebrating their quirks and strengths without excusing any of their faults.

This is a novel that you experience as if you were living it rather than reading it. The book provides an education in how it feels to inhabit different lives. How are people caught in their circumstances, what kinds of choices do they have to make, and what do their choices cost them and the people around them? What are the specific human results of bottom-line decisions? At what point does peace of mind or duty to the family feel more important then doing the "right" thing? What is the right thing, and how do we know?

As a reader, I have a weakness for literary page turners, writers like Iris Murdoch or Toni Morrison who can keep you up all night with great plots and beautiful language, writers who can create characters you seem to know better than most of the people in your life. Yellowcake is that kind of literary page turner. It is a pleasure to read, and at the same time it makes demands: its intelligence asks for intelligence on the part of its readers. It leaves you bigger afterward, if you're able to face the questions it raises.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Native Son on March 26, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Having lived for many years in New Mexico and being an enthusiastic consumer of fiction set in the area, I grabbed Ann Cummins' novel off the shelf as soon as it was published.

I expected a muck-raking story of oppression and exploitation in the notorious open-pit uranium mines. But what I found instead was a complex interweaving of several distinct stories, all centering on the difficult choices--and compromises-- we all must make in life. The characters were well developed and richly diverse, especially the half Navajo hero who holds the story together. I finished the book in a single evening, staying up far later than I should have on a work night. I was wiped out the next morning. It was well worth it.

I've read a lot of other "southwestern" novelists---Udall, LaFarge, Anaya, Hillerman, and even Willa Cather. Ann Cummins is right up there with them.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Sredni Vashtar on March 27, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Knowing nothing about the southwest, Navaho culture, uranium mining, or the illnesses that come from it, I entered a whole new world when I read Yellowcake. But not entirely new: Families seem to be the same everywhere, and the author has been able to capture the rich functions and dysfuctions of daily life in families and extended families when everything is going on: wedding preparations, terminal illness, new relationships blossoming, old relationships exploding. The inter- and intracultural, inter- and intragenerational relationships bring light to the external circumstances in the novel, just as the external circumstances push and pull the characters to their best and worst behavior. I've learned some about the southwest, Navaho culture, uranium mining, and Yellowcake, but mostly, I've entered a world of some very real people, and watched them as they've made difficult decisions under difficult circumstances. I loved the book, and didn't want my relationship with these people to end.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Candelora Versace on July 17, 2010
Format: Paperback
"His first good cough of the day, the ball of it rising from his stomach, hurtling through the rusted pipes, whipping metal bits against his throat; he doubles over, groping his stomach. Dear God, he prays, a torrent of hard nothing whiplashing through, and behind it the something that never comes--oh, he wants it out, the thing that never comes."

Such is the plight of Ryland Mahoney in 1991, an aging former uranium mill supervisor in the Four Corners area, who is coping not only with his own failing lungs (he calls his ever-present oxygen cart his roommate) but also his conflicting feelings about the role he played in exposing himself and his crew to the dangers of uranium during the mill's heyday years before.

Is he responsible for the illness and death he is surrounded by? Should he feel guilty that the hungry Navajo and Anglo workers who eagerly took on the dangerous job are now sick and dying, their bodies riddled with cancers, the land scarred, the water possibly tainted?

"Yellowcake" starts out with an earnest team of lawyers and community organizers who are hoping to expand on the compensation acts recently passed to include not only the sick miners but their families and the rest of the community who has been exposed to the toxic dust and waste from the mine's tailings.

But the legal maneuverings take a distinct back seat to the far more compelling tale of two extended families--one Anglo, one Navajo--who attempt to take their circumstances in stride years after the mill closed.

In "Yellowcake," author Ann Cummins has crafted a fine novel of pain and perseverance, in which the characters balance personal responsibility with doing the best one can in any number of situations.
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