Radiation poisoning doesn't automatically spring to mind when one says the words "family drama." (Postapocalyptic science fiction? Sure. Episodes of "24"? Yep. Graphic novels about superheroes? Absolutely.) But Ann Cummins ("Red Ant House") isn't using radiation to mutate her characters or get readers' adrenalin going. In her smart, deftly written Southwestern novel, the poisoning happened decades ago: In the 1950s and '60s, Navajo families were hired to work the uranium mill at Shiprock, N.M., raking yellowcake, as one character puts it, "in open pans. Steam heated pans."
It's 1991, and family members are seeking compensation for their loved ones' broken health. As far as Ryland Mahoney, former mill supervisor, is concerned, they can do it without his help. He's not about to make the lawyers rich. Despite years of health problems that have left him attached to an oxygen tank, Ryland maintains that to sue now would just be greedy and ungrateful. After all, nobody had to take the jobs. "The thing is, it hadn't been a bad life. They'd done OK."
His wife, Rosy, who faces widowhood and a poverty-stricken old age, thanks to medical expenses, would not agree. Nor would Becky Atcitty. Her dad, a Navajo who used to be able to run a marathon in three hours, can now barely stumble out to his hogan in the backyard and will not see his 50th birthday.
So when Becky shows up at the Mahoneys' door at the opening of the novel, Rosy joins the compensation effort. Ryland's daughter Maggie, who's getting married in a month, is already involved, working for an environmental group in the area. "She'll huddle up with Rosy, giving her all kinds of things to read about radiation poisoning and whatnot. He tells her she ought to thank the nuclear industry. His generation got paid to make a mess, hers gets paid to clean it up. Everybody wins."
Ryland's intense desire to leave well enough alone stems at least partly from unspoken guilt. His touchstone is Sam Behan, a childhood friend, whom Ryland helped to get a job at the mill in 1957. Ryland has pictures of Sam climbing on the tailings pile, planting grass, and installing sprinklers in an effort to placate the media.
"You could see it on Sam. His hair, his eyelashes and eyebrows, normally white-blond, turned pink on a windy day." As long as Sam isn't sick, Ryland figures, it's not his fault.
Cummins jumps ably between Ryland; Becky; Sam, an alcoholic reprobate who now gets cash under the table tying flies for Florida sport fishermen; his ex-wife and Rosy's sister, Lily, who's just now moving on with her life; and Delmar, Sam's son and Becky's cousin, an ex-con who's midway through his parole. Cummins shows tremendous affection and understanding for even the most ornery, and she effortlessly passes that empathy on to readers.
"Yellowcake" is a novel where what happens matters less than how the characters react to it. There are preparations for a wedding and a funeral; Becky has a chance at romance; Delmar gets a job. Sam returns for the first time in 17 years, proving as explosive as uranium, if less deadly.
Despite the everpresent prospect of tragedy, Cummins somehow sneaks in plenty of humor, both ribald and otherwise. In what may be an off-putting trait for some readers, she also writes as vividly about life with a terminal illness as she does about the land and Navajo people around Farmington, N.M.
For example, here's what it takes for Ryland to answer the telephone: "It takes Ryland exactly 22 rings to get out of bed, to get his slippers and robe on, to get the portable oxygen tank rolling. He takes his time getting to the kitchen to answer because he knows Sam won't hang up. Drunk or not, when Sam wants to talk, he's a patient man."
All the characters are grappling, in ways both messy and realistic, with personal responsibility and obligations to family and the past, but perhaps none more than Becky. A loan officer who gave up her apartment and moved back home to help her mother take care of her dad, she is caught between two cultures: Her mother, a Navajo who was adopted into a white family, is a devout Christian. Her grandmother, who has a farm on the reservation, refuses to speak English and will kidnap Becky's father's body if that's what it takes to give him a Navajo funeral.
Meanwhile, Becky must decide between two suitors – a Dallas businessman who's courting her for a business opportunity that would help erase some of her parents' medical debts, and Harrison Zahnee, who teaches Navajo at the Farmington community college.
Cummins dodges an amazing number of pitfalls in her first novel. "Yellowcake" manages to avoid being preachy, depressing, melodramatic, or sanctimonious about either the environment or its native American characters. It deserves a half-life at least as long as its eponymous element.
• Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.