URANIUM FRENZY: BOOM AND BUST ON THE COLORADO PLATEAU; By Raye Ringholz; W.W. Norton; 288 pages; $18.95.
When I was a child growing up in Salt Lake City in the 1960s, my parents used to load the kids into the car a couple of times a year and take us camping down in Arches and Canyonlands. The most fascinating part of driving through the town of Moab, for me anyway, was passing under the cliff where Mi Vida, Charlie Steen's mansion built with a fortune gained prospecting for uranium, commanded a view of the town beneath. I loved to hear my parents and their friends talk about the money made on guts and perseverance and, later, lost through error and bureaucracy.Steen's story of rags to riches to bankruptcy and maybe back to riches is the thread that runs all the way through Raye C. Ringholz's book, "Uranium Frenzy," on the uranium boom and its main players. The story itself is a good one, and because of the spare details local readers may already know, or because of general interest in local landscape, history or politics, a number of people will be especially anxious to read it.
Many already know Ringholz as the author of several regional guides as well as co-author, with Paul Petzoldt, of "The Wilderness Handbook," and past experience will tell these readers that she is likely to tell this tale well. They will not be disappointed.
What Ringholz gives us in her new book is, in part at least, a good old modern-day Western, brimming with adventure and risk. It is a story of wealth yielded or denied by a dangerous, labyrinthine desert; of wildly high stakes; and of individual ambition, idealism and willful greed set against bureaucracy and government incompetence. It is a carefully researched true story whose main characters include explorers, gamblers, mavericks and rakes, the poor on their way up and the rich headed for a fall.
This is not a "literary" book of prose. The point is not the art itself; rather, Ringholz commits herself to evoking a group of characters set within a particular historical context that shaped them and which they shaped. To this end, she establishes her background carefully, laying groundwork by explaining the uses and sources for uranium, the training and education of main characters, and the financial conditions that allowed the uranium stock boom to occur. Briefly and clearly, she presents and explains necessary technical terms as the need arises. All of this information is meticulously documented.
The real miracle is that she can make such explanations surprisingly interesting, often as interesting as the sections focusing on personalities or on out-and-out adventure. I was astonished, for example, to find myself riveted by Ringholz's fairly detailed passages on the development of procedures to test the air in mines for radioactive materials and on the subsequent attempts to establish adequate safety standards for miners.
But the language in this book is perhaps most vivid when Ringholz writes, sometimes fancifully, about the desert landscape that she obviously loves. At one point, she describes the Colorado Plateau as a "giant sandwich" with a "parched and crinkled" crust. At another, she imagines herself back into prehistoric time, when the now arid region "thickened with bamboo, palms and ferns." Later on, she observes with some tenderness the desert's "sequin-sized . . . blossoms."
At other times, usually when she describes the men involved in fueling and riding the stock boom, Ringholz's prose becomes oddly and charmingly Chandleresque. "Jay Walters Jr.," she says, "wasn't the type you'd expect to find in Jack Coombs' address book." Jay Walters Jr. is a seedy old coot with "an elk's tooth dangling from his watch chain," and Jack Coombs is a University of Utah Sigma Chi.
The success of this book, then, isn't only in the story itself, but also in Ringholz's rendering of that story in such a way that it becomes a full evocation of a time, a place and a mood. There are lessons here, in how greed and perseverance may bring a man riches beyond his dreams and in how little it takes in the way of more greed, bureaucracy or simple lack of attention to waken him back into real-world poverty.
It is true, as Ringholz points out, that there were a lot of losers when the boom ended, most subject to their own flaws, especially greed. But some, including a large number of miners who died of lung cancer after being exposed to massive doses of radiation in the mines, usually without their knowledge, were the real losers, along with their families. These were people who never had the chance to "make it big" the way their bosses did - in every way, they were the victims of the boom, and Ringholz movingly describes their plight and the fights of the miners' widows to be compensated for their husbands' deaths.
As for the others, Ringholz points out that in their cases the final lesson may be one of the frontier - that there are times when adventure itself is worth any outcome.
Whether you read this book looking for technical information, good history or political fuel - or if you just want to experience the adventure without the risk - you will find what you are looking for, and the rest, too.