3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Free At Last,
This review is from: Yellowcake (Hardcover)
"Yellowcake" called to me from the library shelf because of the Native American theme. Perhaps I didn't read closely enough, but I didn't realize I was a reading a book with a main element of cancer death. Ann Cummins does an interesting job of focusing on a group of characters all affected by radioactivity in the uranium mines. The term "yellowcake" apparently comes from the radioactive residue that coated machinery and was frequently handled by Native American workers. However, all that is background for the story.
It is in the narrative that the novel bogs down. There are so many characters that it becomes hard to keep them separate. After reading, I'm still a bit confused as to who belongs to whom. In a novel where there are several races as well as mixed blood, I was frequently confused about each character's heritage. It seemed to be an important issue; so it needed to be made more clear.
For a substantial portion of the book, we follow Ryland Mahoney who is in failing in health and walks with an oxygen tank. The story goes into Ryland's dream life punctuated by consciousness. Ryland was the foreman at the mine. Others blame him for the deaths of their loved ones. One of the most effective chapters is where Ryland takes a bath and falls asleep in the tub, becoming unable to move due to hypothermia. This leads into a series of chapters about a funeral. For quite a while, I thought the funeral was for Ryland. Instead, Cummins clumsily makes the funeral about a very minor character named Woody that appeared for about three pages. There doesn't seem to be any intentional misleading. We're supposed to recall the huge cast of characters and determine who has died by the family members involved. This was one of the most ineffective parts of the book.
Cummins also seems to explore many relationships in the book, leaving them open-ended. We have the reappearance of Sam who apparently is still married. Delmar is Sam's half-Native American, half-White son. Sam's wife Lily has failed to file divorce papers for something like 17 years (can't recall exactly) because she apparently still loves Sam. However, she then gets very frightened after giving Sam $5,000 and then claiming that he stole the money. No one addresses the fact that she's lying. Meanwhile she becomes totally paranoid about Sam attacking her and deteriorates mentally. Sam goes swimming in a stream and that's the last we hear of him. Cummins takes a major plot line and then drops it like a hot cake at the church pancake social.
Other love relationships are also unclear. Cummins spends less time developing the characters Becky and Harrison. Political issues about the reopening of the mine come into play, but the relationship is left hanging and unresolved. All of this leads to the experience of having dropped in on the life of these characters. Unfortunately, we exit the book not sure of what has happened. "Yellowcake" seems muddy and unresolved. The book's pacing bogs down as Cummins spends huge amounts of verbiage describing things that add no particular value to the unfocused plot.
In the end, this book was depressing. Segments were well written. But it was a story that I waded through to be able to joyfully exclaim as I turned the last page, "Free at last! Free at last! Great God Almighty, I'm free at last!" Maybe the best way to be free of this book is to not start it. Taxi!