Hot and Heavy
(Houghton-Mifflin · hardcover · $24)
Whether it's possible to write an enjoyable novel that tackles a hot-button issue is an oft-debated topic in the fiction world, both for the obvious reason that it's tough not to slide into polemic and the less obvious but more problematic one of making topical (but sometimes dry) details interesting to the reader. In her debut novel, award-winning short story writer Ann Cummins proves that, like Jodi Picoult, she has what it takes to write not only an issue-centered novel but an entertaining one as well.
Yellowcake is the story of two families in Shiprock, N.M., whose patriarchs worked at a uranium mine in the ’60s. Both mine supervisor Ryland Mahoney and miner Woody Atcitty now suffer from unnamed lung disorders. As the book opens in 1991, Woody's daughter Becky comes to visit the Mahoneys, hoping to enlist Ryland in the effort to expose the mine owners' long knowledge of the potential dangers.
Because Cummins' father was a uranium mill worker, the author spent much of her childhood on the Navajo reservation, an experience she has used to marvelous effect in Yellowcake. Cummins is at her best when delving into seemingly ordinary lives, and both the Anglo Mahoneys and Navajo Atcittys are believable, human characters for whom the reader quickly comes to care and cheer.
Multiple point of view narratives introduce us to the likes of Ryland, his selfish best friend Sam and the wonderfully drawn Delmar, Becky's cousin, who's recently been released from jail and is trying to put his life back together. A lively cast of secondary characters—including Becky's Navajo grandmother and Christian Navajo mother, and Ryland’s family, which is preparing for daughter Maggie's wedding—round out the mix.
While a number of typos, especially when it comes to place names, may momentarily derail readers familiar with the Four Corners area, this complaint is minor when it comes to a novel that so successfully brings its characters to life while at the same time exploring an issue that deserves attention.