The Human Side of the Issue: Ann Cummins' Yellowcake

With Yellowcake, Ann Cummins walks a dangerously thin line.  Her story is one of disease, radiation, and cultural struggle, all issues that many of us might find difficult to write about without ending up on a figurative soapbox.  Cummins, however, never makes that error; she approaches her story from an angle that is utterly human in perspective.   Cummins walks the line between political activism and the minutiae of daily life with such grace that the reader doesn't notice the balancing act and can simply engage with her fully realized, realistically flawed characters.

Yellowcake reads like a collection of several distinct stories woven together with the common threads of family, old friendships, and long exposure to radiation through yellowcake in the uranium mills of Colorado and New Mexico.   Ryland Mahoney, Sam Behan, and Woody Atcitty are the three men whose history as workers in a uranium mill near Shiprock, New Mexico drive the story forward; Ryland, an Anglo, and Woody, a Navajo, are slowly dying from radiation-caused illnesses, and their families and friends must struggle with the guilt, fear, and loss tangled up in their sickness.

However, while Ryland and Woody's illnesses are what brings the wide cast of characters into focus, it is each characters' individual struggles with daily life that resonate with the reader.  For Woody's daughter Becky, her father's illness forces her to confront the tension between Navajo and Anglo culture present in her own life.  Becky's struggles with her heritage and life on the reservation are remarkably nuanced, and as with the rest of the characters, the reader is drawn to Becky as a realistic character rather than a figurehead for an issue.  She finds no easy answers to her questions, often finding no answers at all in a way that mirrors real experience.

Cummins' prose is rock solid, her descriptions clear and precise.  Still, her writing has moments of startling lyricism; Ryland remembers how "entering the mill when the heat-seared walls began to sweat was exhilarating, like moving hard into a fast hot wind," while Becky sees "four windsurfers ... dipping in and out of Morgan Lake.  Power plant machinery percolates a rhythmic metallic breath.  The air smells a little like chlorine."  Punctuated with these moments of lyricism and graceful observation, Cummins' sharp, accessible prose perfectly supports her weighty story.

By the end of the novel, Cummins has taught us something about the effects of uranium exposure as well as the cultural struggles between a Navajo way of life and mainstream America, but the strongest impression is left by the fullness of her characters.  Yellowcake doesn't preach or act as a public service announcement; it just tells a story, straightforward and real, and lets the reader walk away with whatever they will about the issues underneath. 

--Julie Swarstad

Ann Cummins is a short-story writer and novelist whose writing has been published in The New Yorker, McSweeney's, and The Best American Short Stories, 2002.  She is the author of Red Ant House: Stories (2003) and Yellowcake (2007).  She is a graduate of John Hopkins University and the University of Arizona Creative Writing MFA Program.  The recipient of a Lannan fellowship, Cummins is a professor of creative writing at Northern Arizona University.

Ann Cummins will read at the UA Poetry Center on Thursday, January 20 at 8 p.m. along with fellow UA alum David Wojahn.

Created on: 
Tuesday, January 18, 2011
Arizona Board of Regents