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’s more 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.