For her acclaimed collection of stories, Red Ant House, Joyce Carol Oates hailed Ann Cummins as “a master storyteller.” The San Francisco Chronicle called her “startlingly original.” Now, in her debut novel, Cummins stakes claim to rich new literary territory with a story of straddling cultures and cheating fate in the American Southwest. Yellowcake introduces us to two unforgettable families—one Navajo, one Anglo—some thirty years after the closing of the uranium mill near which they once made their homes. When little Becky Atcitty shows up on the Mahoneys’ doorstep all grown up, the past comes crashing in on Ryland and his lively brood. Becky, the daughter of one of the Navajo mill workers Ryland had supervised, is now involved in a group seeking damages for those harmed by the radioactive dust that contaminated their world. But Ryland wants no part of dredging up their past—or acknowledging his future. When his wife joins the cause, the messy, modern lives of this eclectic cast of characters collide once again, testing their mettle, stretching their faith, and reconnecting past and present in unexpected new ways. Finely crafted, deeply felt, and bursting with heartache and hilarity, Yellowcake is a moving story of how everyday people sort their way through life, with all its hidden hazards.
|Publisher:||Houghton Mifflin Harcourt|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x (d)|
About 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.
Read an Excerpt
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
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
If you enjoy Barbara Kingsolver books, you will love this one. Fantastic characters and a healthy dose of environmental issues without being overly political.
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!