The legacy of uranium: Cummins’ first novel explores the mining era

When Houghton Mifflin accepted author Ann Cummins’ short story collection, “Red Ant House,” for publication, her editor offered her a two-book contract. For the second book, she would write a novel.

“I had no idea how to do it,” she laughs over the phone from her office at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, where she teaches creative writing and English.

Still, she accepted the deal. Last March, Houghton Mifflin brought out her novel, “Yellowcake,” set in the Four Corners, and named for the yellow bricks of processed uranium ore once mined and milled on the Navajo Reservation.

“It’s about the uranium industry,” she says. “And how it played out ANN CUMMINS' FIRST NOVEL, "YELLOWCAKE"in the 1960s and 1970s.”

She knows well how the industry played out in the Four Corners at that time. Her father worked in a uranium mill, first in her home town, Durango, and later in Shiprock, N.M.

“I grew up bicultural,” she says. “It was such an educational experience to be on the reservation and see how many different kinds of lifestyles my Navajo classmates lived.”

Her soft but lively voice rises. “Some were traditional. Others were more Christian-influenced. . . I was a minority, and very aware of differences. [That] taught me how to listen to other people, and to observe the way [others] act and what they believe.”

She poured her observations into “Yellowcake.” “One of the things I wanted to explore in the novel is the fallout for the people who worked in the mines and the mills.”

Her father eventually died of cancer, brought on by uranium exposure. Still, she doesn’t consider “Yellowcake” to be about the hazards of uranium-mining. It’s about the complex reactions of complex characters who got involved in the uranium industry.

Set in 1991, the story features a white mill foreman, and a Navajo worker he supervised when the mill was operational. Both now struggle with cancer, but neither wishes to seek compensation from the government.

The foreman believes he carries the responsibility for his illness, since he chose to work in a uranium mill. The Navajo doesn’t know how to cope with legal and medical bureaucracy.

The Navajo’s daughter tries to help both men, but finds herself caught between her belief in Western science and justice, and her traditional Navajo grandmother.

As these people cope with their problems, another white mill worker struggles with an alcohol addiction, and his infatuation with a Navajo woman, by whom he has a son, who is trying to find his place in two cultures.

Cummins got pleasure out of putting “Yellowcake” together. Writing the short stories for “Red Ant House” required her to focus on one or two characters, and simple themes. She could envision complicated environments, but she could only focus on microcosms of those worlds.

“Once I got into the novel and realized how much freedom I had to build my characters and work with a complex plot, it felt very liberating.”

However, with the liberation came challenge. Cummins started “Yellowcake” with the white mill foreman, inspired by her father. But as she developed him, he changed from her dad into his own person.

“My first draft was 250 pages of this guy, and his conflicts of having to relyon other people for his health needs.”

She loved the foreman, but realized his story had little plot. It was also depressing, since it focused on illness. Her editor suggested she add characters and explore their points of view.

When she followed that suggestion, the story expanded. She had a chance to explore the Four Corners landscape and to examine the psyches of people not confined to a sick room.

“I actually auditioned lots of characters and some of them couldn’t make the cut. I couldn’t imagine what it was like to be in (their) heads.” When she found characters she believed she could bring to life, she used them.

Her favorite was the son of the white alcoholic and the Navajo mother. “He was fun. . . because culturally he was on the fringe of things. It was easier for me to imagine someone who was raised that way, than someone who was raised in a very traditional [Navajo] way.”

Once she had her characters, she had to use the Navajo language in specific scenes. She worked with a linguist to get phrasing to fit plot and situation. She also did extensive research to make sure her characters knew everything they should.

“My writing process is very chaotic,” Cummins admits. “It comes from giving voice to characters and seeing where the characters take me.”

For every 1,000 pages she wrote as she drafted ‘Yellowcake,” she believes she used 100.

But now that “Yellowcake” is in bookstores, she’s ready for another learning process. With a Sloan Foundation grant, and in partnership with San Francisco’s Magic Theater, she’s adapting the novel to the stage.

“It’ll be a few years before I have a play. . . but it’s a real interesting experience,” she laughs.

From -July 2007, Arts & Entertainment.