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Yellow Dirt: An American Story of a Poisoned Land and a People Betrayed chronicles the 1940s discovery of uranium mines in Navajo territories and how the resulting radiation had long-lasting implications for generations to come.
A part of American history too few are aware of, the discovery of the mines was full of conflict from the start. Whereas many Navajo elders argued in favor of leaving the earth as they found it, younger members of the tribe were eager to use it as a way of making profit. Many worked in the mines for years, with their families living in their shadows, unknowingly exposing themselves to deadly levels of radiation. It wasn’t until many years had passed, with the death rates from various cancers and the number of children born with birth defects on the rise, that the tribes begin to question just what they had been living and working with.
Laural Merlington is the perfect choice for this story’s narration. Her voice is warm and deep, with a slight undefineable accent that lends credibility and makes the listener feel as if they’re getting the story direct from a member of the tribe. Her reading is spot-on, with incredible attention paid to the foreign and difficult Navajo language. Each word is spoken carefully, with well-thought out phrasing, making the words sound melodious and almost lyrical. Although the book is a work of nonfiction, Merlington still makes a concerted effort to give each player a unique voice; as the book features a cast of dozens, it helps to distinguish each player, and weave a story amid the many facts.
Whereas it would have been simpler to exclude the vernacular and terms in favor of their English counterparts, author Judy Pasternack’s use of the Navajo language helps bolster the story and round it out with a richness that English wouldn’t be able to provide. Her tireless work to get to the bottom of this sad tale not only gives the tribes a voice, but also helps bring to light the fact that the government initially dragged its feet cleaning up the sites, and, in fact, even admitting that there had been any radiation at all. Once Pasternak started digging and exposed irrefutable proof of the radiation poisoning’s continued effects on the tribe, it was no longer possible to ignore the facts and slow progress finally began to help the tribes recoup their losses and rebuild their shattered lives. Lesley Grossman
From the 1930s to the 1960s, the United States knowingly used and discarded an entire tribe of people. The Navajo worked unprotected in the uranium mines that fueled the Manhattan Project and the Cold War. Long after these mines were abandoned, Navajos in all four corners of the Reservation (which borders Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona) continued grazing their animals on sagebrush flats riddled with uranium that had been blasted from the ground. They drank contaminated water from old pits, which had filled with rain. They built their houses out of chunks of yellowcake, they inhaled radioactive dust borne aloft from the waste piles the mining companies had left behind, and their children played in the unsealed mines themselves.
Ten years after the mines closed, the cancer rate on the reservation shot up and the babies began to be born with crooked fingers that fused together into claws as they grew. Scientists filed complaints about the situation with the government but were told it was a mess "too expensive" to clean up. Few had heard this story until Judy Pasternak exposed it in a prizewinning Los Angeles Times series. Her work not only inspired this book, which is already a winner of the J. Anthony Lukas Work-In-Progress Award, it also galvanized both a congressman and a famous prosecutor to clean the sites and get reparations for the tribe. Yellow Dirt powerfully chronicles both the scandal of neglect and the Navajo’s fight for justice.
This is an important book which points out the true cost of the atomic age.
If you could sum up Yellow Dirt in three words, what would they be?
Absolutely jaw dropping!
What was one of the most memorable moments of Yellow Dirt?
The fact that Native Americans in general and Navajos in particular are a throw away society to the government. All anyone cared about was the uranium and getting enough to make bombs. Generations of families are forever changed by greedy men whose only thought was MORE.
What does Laural Merlington bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you just read the book?
An attempt at pronouncing the Navajo words.
If you were to make a film of this book, what would the tag line be?
All that glitters is not gold.
Any additional comments?
A well researched and stunning look at the effects of unchecked ethics toward The Navajos. It is the story of greedy and power hungry men who took advantage of the resources and lives of the Navajo People.
This is an amazing history of an American tragedy. I can not praise this book enough. It's the work of an LA Times reporter who brought to light the betrayal of the Navaho People for the uranium below their land. The book starts in the beginning of the arms race and continues to this day. She is a fantastic writer and this is a great book.