KNAU's Southwest Book Review: 'Yellowcake'

Jun 20, 2014

Ann Cummins’ 2007 novel “Yellowcake” is set in the uranium country of northern Arizona and New Mexico. In the book, the Flagstaff-based author presents two families struggling with the complex fallout of the mining life. In KNAU’s latest Southwest Book Review, Mary Sojourner says “Yellowcake” is a compelling work by an author who captures humanity at its most personal level.

Too often, people writing about the desert Southwest take a stance of occupation: I am here. I saw this. I did that. Our lands and people become merely screens on which the writer projects his or her own personality, writing dazzle or need to be seen as amazing. In “Yellowcake,” Ann Cummins stands graciously back from her characters, and from their piñon-juniper, red sand, trailer parks and little towns — and lets herself be occupied by them.

          They are two families woven together by human longing, mistakes and deep decency. Their homes are the uranium-mining ravaged towns of northern Arizona and New Mexico. Their territory is the landscape of the battered human heart.

While a central theme of “Yellowcake” is the plan to seek damages from the uranium mill where Anglo Ryland Mahoney, his friend Sam Behan and their Navajo co-worker Woody Atcitty once worked, it is the tangled weave of connections between Ryland, Sam, Woody and their families that carry the novel.

Ann Cummins is a weaver, her words sure as the hands of a Navajo rug maker. And like many of the traditional weavers, she knows to work a Spirit Line through “Yellowcake” — akin to the single gray thread that a woman would make deliberately, to allow her creativity to leave a finished rug and go on to the next work.

Cummin’s characters move through a glorious landscape on sometimes inglorious errands. Here is Delmar Atcitty as he races his dwindling gas tank to Bloomfield, New Mexico: “He rolls his window all the way down, leaning half out, feeling the sting of cool mountain air. Stars paper the sky overhead in this glittery world. He comes up fast on a slow-moving car, its sleepy taillights weaving back and forth from the shoulder to the broken white line, and he lays on the horn as he passes, waking the driver up. ‘I’m already gone,’ he says to the answering horn.

There are no neat resolutions in “Yellowcake.” Instead, there are human betrayal, corporate deceit, affairs and the abyss between traditional Navajo ways and the laws of the occupiers. There is loss. There is death.

But, by the time the book comes to its hard-scrabble close, Ryland and Rosy Mahoney have battled their way — as a long-time loving couple can — to a recognition of what truly matters. Sam Behan may or may not have found a way to peace. Becky Atcitty and her wild brother Delmar may have found their ways forward. The Spirit Line weaves its way out to the edge of this tender and relentless work. And, Ann Cummins steps even more firmly onto the red earth of real Western Literature.