Yellowcake: A Novel
  • Yellowcake: A Novel
  • Yellowcake: A Novel

Yellowcake: A Novel

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by Ann Cummins

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This absorbing novel of the American Southwest introduces us to two unforgettable families -- the Irish-Catholic Mahoneys and the Navajo Attcitys -- who despite their differences are joined through shared history and tragedy. Two decades ago, Ryland Mahoney and Woody Attcity had both worked processing the radioactive concentrate yellowcake in a New Mexican uranium…  See more details below


This absorbing novel of the American Southwest introduces us to two unforgettable families -- the Irish-Catholic Mahoneys and the Navajo Attcitys -- who despite their differences are joined through shared history and tragedy. Two decades ago, Ryland Mahoney and Woody Attcity had both worked processing the radioactive concentrate yellowcake in a New Mexican uranium mill. Now both men are facing terminal illness. Woody’s daughter is convinced that the mine is to blame and is determined to help her father fight for compensation. But Ryland wants no part of dredging up their past -- or acknowledging his future -- choosing instead to focus on his own daughter’s upcoming wedding.

Cummins’s complex and fascinating characters shine through in a gripping read that is radiant with heartache and humor and the possibility of redemption.

Editorial Reviews

Ron Charles
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.
— The Washington Post
Library Journal
Ryland Mahoney, Sam Behan, and Woody Atcitty are more than three decades away from the New Mexico uranium mine where they all worked and breathed in the radioactive yellow dust ("yellowcake") that has now sickened Ryland and Woody, who is Navajo. Rumblings of lawsuits and settlements accompany Woody's daughter, Becky, and an entourage of lawyers to the Mahoneys' home, where preparations are being made for daughter Maggie's wedding. When Sam arrives in town for the event, he finds that his ex-wife, Lily, has a legal issue of her own regarding their divorce proceedings and that the son he fathered with his longtime mistress is just out of prison. Things get increasingly complicated and chaotic for all of the Anglo and Navajo families involved as the past must be reckoned with on a variety of overlapping and messy levels. Cummins, an instructor at Northern Arizona University and author of the 2003 short story collection Red Ant House, presents a tightly drawn and absorbing novel of the modern American Southwest, exploring themes of aging, illness, cultural misunderstandings, and strained family relationships honestly and realistically while also offering a strong regional flavor. Recommended for larger fiction collections.
—Jenn B. Stidham
Kirkus Reviews
The title refers to the noxious dust produced by a uranium mill in the Four Corners region of the Southwest, where this complex, unusually mature debut novel takes place. In 1991, years after the mill's closing, former workers and their families still suffer from the fumes' toxic effects. Ryland Mahoney, a former mill supervisor now dependent on his oxygen tank, refuses to connect his early poor health to his mill work. Although his wife Rosy attends meetings, he wants nothing to do with a group forming to sue for compensation. One member of that group is Becky Atcitty, a loan officer at the local bank, whose father, Woody, worked with Ryland and is now, at 46, dying of cancer. The Mahoneys are Irish Catholic, the Atcittys Navajo. They live in largely separate worlds that sometimes intersect and occasionally collide. Ryland's best friend, Sam, another mill worker, left Rosy's sister Lily for Woody's sister Alice. Sixteen at the time, Alice bore Sam's child-Delmar-but would not marry him. Now living in Florida and nearly destitute, Sam comes home to attend Ryland's daughter's wedding. Discovering that Lily never finalized their divorce, Sam "extorts" money from her. Sam desperately wants to see Alice, who is away on the rodeo circuit. Instead, he tries to reestablish his paternal connection with Delmar for the first time in years. After a short prison stint, Delmar is genuinely, touchingly trying to go straight. Woody soon dies, and Sam helps Delmar and his grandmother try, unsuccessfully, to ensure that he receives a proper Navajo funeral. Becky, who has begun a tentative romance with a Navajo teacher, finds herself caught between loyalty to her father's Navajo traditions and her mother'smore assimilated Christianity. While Ryland, Sam and Woody have allowed themselves to become victims, Becky and Delmar ultimately learn how to control their own destinies. Cummins (stories: Red Ant House, 2003) avoids distracting polemics, interweaving the personal and political with quiet authority.

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Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x (d)

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They come at ten o’clock in the morning. Ryland’s wife, Rosy, is at the fabric store with their daughter, Maggie, who’s getting married next month. Ryland goes ahead and opens the door against his better judgment. He always opens the door when somebody rings, though he usually regrets it. He is not afraid of muggers. Muggers, he figures, will leave sooner rather than later. He’s afraid of the neighbor lady, Mrs. Barron, who always leaves later, and the Mormon missionaries, who like to fight with his wife, they always leave later. And Pretty Boy across the street, old Hal Rivers, who waters his lawn in bikini swim trunks, parades young girls in and out, day in, day out, lady’s man, though he has a gut and a little bald pate — still, the girls like him, which only goes to show that it’s not the looks but the pocketbook. Old Hal stopping by every now and again to chew the fat terrifies him, though Ryland makes sure the man never knows but that he’s welcome.
This man and woman, though, Ryland doesn’t recognize. He lets them in because of the young Navajo woman with them. She has to tell him who she is. Becky Atcitty.
“You know my dad,” she says.
“You’re not Becky Atcitty.” “Yes I am.” He stands for a minute and admires the young woman little Becky has become. He tells her that when he first met her she wasn’t any bigger than a thumbnail. Now they sit across from him, three of them on the couch, and Becky begins telling him how Woody is sick.
Ryland shakes his head. He likes Woody. “Your dad was a good worker. Every time somebody didn’t show up for ashift at the mill, I’d call him and say, ‘Woody, got a cup of joe with your name on it,’ and your dad’d always say, ‘Okay, then.’ ” Ryland looks over Becky’s head out the front window to the ash tree in the yard. The leaves are green-white, dry. Rosy has hung plywood children in plywood swings, a boy and a girl, from the tree limbs. The children aren’t swinging, though, because there’s no hint of a breeze.
“He has lung cancer,” the woman with Becky says. Classy. Dressed like a TV news anchor in one of those boxy suits. Hair any color but natural — one of those poofed-up, clipped, and curled deals that hugs her head.
“Your dad’s a strong man,” Ryland says to Becky. “Don’t you worry.” Becky is sitting between the man and the woman. The man is looking all around, beaming at the pictures on the wall. His hair is pulled back in a little ponytail. Skinny guy in jeans.
Becky says, “We just think that maybe the mill workers should get some of the same benefits the miners got.” “We’re just at the beginning of this process, Mr. Mahoney,” the woman says. “The mill workers like yourself and Mr. Atcitty are entitled . . . Tell him about the air ventilation in the mills, Bill. Bill’s a public interest lawyer —” “I don’t have cancer.” The woman stops. She blinks at him. He watches her eyes slide to the portable oxygen tank at his feet.
“Of course not,” she says. “We were wondering if you kept medical histories on your workers, and if by chance you still have . . .” “You people like something? I could put on some coffee. Rosy’ll be home any minute. She’s going to be mad if she sees Becky Atcitty here and I didn’t give her anything.” Becky says, “They think if you’ve got any records on Dad it might give us some place to start.” “Mr. Mahoney,” the woman says, “as I’m sure you know, we made great strides when the compensation act passed, but it does us no good if there’s no way for victims to collect. The mill workers like yourself and Mr. Atcitty are entitled . . . Bill, tell him about the —” “He doesn’t have to tell me anything,” Ryland says.
The woman blinks again. She smiles.
The lawyer gets up and walks over to the pictures on the wall. “Is this your family, Mr. Mahoney? Handsome family.” Ryland stares at the man staring at his family.
The woman says, “This is simply about workers who were continually exposed to toxic —” “Your daddy doesn’t know you’re here, does he.” He peers at Becky, who leans back into the couch. They had a party when she was born. He brought cigars and cider to the mill. Sam Behan, his old chum, teased him. “During working hours, Ry?” Sam said, and Ryland said, “Who’s the boss?” They all raised a glass and toasted this girl’s birth.
Ryland leans forward. The girl stares at something over his shoulder. He can’t read her. Navajos. Never could read them. But her dad, Woody was a good man. Didn’t truck with unions. When they wanted to bring the union in, Woody said he had a family to support. This Ryland knows for a fact.
“Don’t you worry about your dad,” he says. “He’s a strong man.” He looks at the news anchor lady. Her eyes are as bright as a chilld’s, and her grinning teeth are blue-white. Her hands, laced in a fist on her lap, are white, too, and the skin pulls so tight it looks like her knuckles are about to bust through.
“One of the best men I know,” Ryland says to her. “Woodrow Atcitty. This girl’s dad.”

But Rosy catches them as they’re leaving. Now the four of them sit around the kitchen table drinking coffee. Ryland sits in his chair in the living room. “. . . little chance the Navajo miners with legitimate claims can file. The red tape is prohibitive,” the lawyer’s saying.
On the TV a fancy man is breaking eggs into a dish. The man uses one hand to break the eggs — egg in the palm of the hand, little tap, then presto! On the egg-breaking hand, the cook wears a Liberace ring. One of those rings that stretches from knuckle to fist.
The lawyer says they’ve only just begun to organize. He wants to have community meetings. He wants to educate and motivate.
Moneygrubbing lawyer. Ryland would lay bets that guy’s on the clock. The man isn’t sitting at his kitchen table out of charity.
Liberace says, “Whisk it up good.” He’s making a confection.
Ryland watches him stir sugar into eggs.
Rosy wants them to know about Ryland’s handkerchiefs. “All those years that he worked in the uranium mill, his handkerchiefs were always stained yellow from mucus he blew out of his nose. I have many questions and no answers.” “We all have questions,” the lawyer says. “Maybe you’d like to join us next week. We’re identifying key people in the region who might form a planning committee.” “Sure,” Rosy says. “Any day but Tuesday.” She says something about a doctor’s appointment Tuesday. Ryland strains to hear. He hits the mute button on the channel changer. She’s saying he’s got some sort of test scheduled.
“What test?” he calls out.
The kitchen goes silent. Ryland can feel them looking at each other. Then Rosy yells, “I told you about it. We scheduled this a month ago, Ryland.” He stares at the thick confection as Liberace pours it into a bowl. Now he hears a chair skidding on the kitchen linoleum, and he watches his wife’s reflection in the TV screen as she comes into the living room. “You agreed to it,” she says quietly. She says that Dr. Callahan recommen

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Meet the Author

Ann Cummins is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University and the University of Arizona writing programs. She is the author of Red Ant House, a San Francisco Chronicle bestseller and Best Book of the Year. She has had her stories published in The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, Quarterly West, and the Sonora Review, among other publications, as well as The Best American Short Stories 2002. The recipient of a Lannan fellowship, she divides her time between Oakland, California, where she lives with her husband, and Flagstaff, Arizona, where she teaches creative writing at Northern Arizona University.

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Yellowcake 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
If you enjoy Barbara Kingsolver books, you will love this one. Fantastic characters and a healthy dose of environmental issues without being overly political.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Cummins' second book (and first novel) shows us the daily battles we face within ourselves, only it shows us these struggles in the face of a larger one: reparition for past wrongs. It's a fluid, engaging and powerful read. I highly recommend it!