By Ann Cummins
Houghton Mifflin. 303 pp. $24
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. ·
Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.