Two communities are adversely effected by the closure of the neighborhood uranium mine in Ann Cumminsí first novel, Yellowcake. With vivid descriptive language, Cummins takes the reader into the lives of two complex families as they deal with death, life and an uncertain future.
The book centers on the experiences of Ryland Mahoney, a former supervisor at the townís uranium mine, and Becky Atcitty, the Navajo daughter of one of Rylandís former employees. Both characters try to grapple with complex family issues, from Rylandís illness affecting his daughterís wedding to the death of Beckyís father, while facing their own personal struggles.
Uranium mining over the years has left Ryland and Beckyís father with lingering illness. Instead of tackling political issues head-on, characters slowly unfold the issues of workers compensation, medical bills and class-action lawsuits. Different characters take various stances on how to deal with the growing deaths among the tight-knit group of former workers, from Beckyís reluctant conviction to Rylandís denial of his deteriorating health. All of these complexities give the reader a new perspective on the side effects of mining.
The desert becomes a character in its own right with Cummins beautiful prose. Set in the American Southwest desert, the red rock, the glowing sunsets, and the flat earth are prominent in the story.
Though Becky and Ryland may be the standouts of the book, Cummins puts in multiple characters in the complicated plotline. Beckyís aunt is the long-time mistress of Sam Behan, Rylandís best friend and ex-husband of his sister-in-law, Lily Behan. New love blossoms for Becky while old love torments Lily. Relationships between lovers, parents, children, family and community are interwoven nicely by Cumminsí quick but concise chapters.
Tribal loyalty and trust are questioned in the dual communities. Cummins vividly creates two separate but at times clashing worlds of the Navajo reservation and the working-class white community. The prejudices, politics and pain in both communities are on full display. Beckyís multi-ethnic family grapples with how to deal with her fatherís funeral. Rylandís family struggles with how to deal with Samís questionable behavior toward Lily. When the two communities do come together, the tension and affection are genuinely felt.
Nearly every major and minor character, from Lily to Samís son, Delmar, are given time to shine - perhaps a bit too much. At times, Cummins devotes too much attention to minor plotlines and introduces too many characters, derailing the main storyline. Despite this setback, the family saga is engaging and gives a wonderful glimpse into the aftermath of a broken community.