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'Yellowcake' Explores Human Impact of Mining

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'Yellowcake' Explores Human Impact of Mining

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'Yellowcake' Explores Human Impact of Mining

'Yellowcake' Explores Human Impact of Mining

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Ann Cummins' new novel, Yellowcake, set in New Mexico's uranium mining country, is an intimate story of two families dealing with the human toll of the mining life.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

As a hang out in the man camps, the roughnecks could catch up on their reading. Writer Ann Cummins' new novel, "Yellowcake," is set in a uranium-mining town in a Navajo country of New Mexico.

Book critic Veronique de Turenne has this review.

VERONIQUE DE TURENNE: "Yellowcake" is a lovely, often powerful book burdened by an unfortunate title. Do yourself a favor. Forget the global brouhaha the word yellowcake calls up and picture New Mexico instead; 1991, the remote four corners area, in the heat dust and sun struck quiet of a desert summer. This yellowcake is a small story told in a small town.

Ryland Mahoney is almost 50, the head of an Irish-American family getting ready for a wedding. Woody Atcitty is 46, the patriarch of a Navajo clan bracing for his funeral. Both men worked for decades in New Mexico's uranium mines, and both men are dying. Here's Ryland recalling the mines.

(Reading) You didn't want to go in. You didn't want to begin. Once there though, the heat took you. You gotten to the rhythm of the place, the clickity-click of the bearings in the conveyor belt, the steady pounding of the crushers grinding rocks to bits, dust, the texture of chalk, mouth and nose coated. Entering the mill when the heat-seared walls and ceiling began to sweat was exhilarating, like moving hard into a fast, hot wind.

Ryland's wife, Rosy, and Woody's daughter, Becky, has become activists, fighting for compensation. Their political quest conjures a large cast of characters: There's Ryland's oddball best friend in town for the wedding and making big trouble, a uranium lobbyist trying to reopen the mine, Rosy's sister trying hard to fall for a good man for a change.

For the most part, Cummins juggles them deftly, sketching in secrets and betrayals, romance and desire. Sometimes, as with Delmar, a Navajo youth struggling to pull free of his felonious past, she creates someone so vivid, each time the story veers away, you feel cheated. But she really delivers with Harrison, a traditional Navajo bent on romancing a reluctant Becky. Here, they wind up at the same restaurant.

(Reading) She sits across from him in a lime green booth with ripped upholstery. She's no longer miserable, she's nervous. He makes her feel a little the way Delmar makes her feel, like her parts don't quite connect, like disaster could be around any corner, like she's fully awake, the world tumbling toward her.

The world does tumble in "Yellowcake," though not in the ways we expect. Cummins, whose own father worked the uranium mines, stays true to the quirks and crotchets of her characters. But instead of an angry screed or an easy ending, she gives us a soulful meditation on the half-life of disaster, and the half-life we face without love.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: The book is "Yellowcake" by Ann Cummins. Our reviewer is Los Angeles writer Veronique de Turenne.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: NPR's DAY TO DAY continues.

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