R.D. Saunders’s nonfiction memoir, Underground and Radioactive: Adventures of a Uranium Miner in 1970s New Mexico, is the author’s love song to the art and challenge of mining and his affinity with working underground. Before I began reading, I wondered how dry a book on this subject might be, but soon found that the author’s story was engaging and addictive. Saunders is a natural-born storyteller, and even being somewhat claustrophobic didn’t stop me from vicariously relishing his adventures while working as a laborer and eventually as a miner in Section 35. His accounts of the experienced men he worked with, and later those newer workers who became his helpers, are fascinating, especially his association and friendship with long-timer miner Cal Cargill. I found myself looking forward to the photographs that are interspersed throughout the narrative and avidly studying the machinery displayed in many of them. Yes, I’ve always been opposed to nuclear energy and fought the proliferation of nuclear power plants, but this book is not about those subjects. Yes, they mined for uranium, but the story of those miners, the life they led in that small boom town and the skills they used in making their working environment a safe one takes precedence here. Underground and Radioactive: Adventures of a Uranium Miner in 1970s New Mexico is most highly recommended.
Underground and Radioactive: Adventures of a Uranium Miner in 1970s New Mexico by R.D. Saunders is a memoir that is so aptly and succinctly described in the sub-title. The author recreates, in excellent prose and with vivid clarity, the joys and perils, the almost forgotten memories of those associated with the “Uranium Capital of the World” as they ventured underground in 1970s New Mexico. Beginning with a mining accident that almost convinced him his underground adventures would be over, the author leads readers into what it felt like, smelled like, and looked like to work as a uranium miner.
The writing is beautiful and it opens an entire world and experience to readers; the prose leaps off the pages of the book with unusual elegance, and it is sprinkled with vivid descriptions of tools, machinery, and processes, allowing the reader to have a complete picture of what mining looked like in the ‘70s. From the preface, the reader already feels how intimate the author is with the experience when he writes: “There is no other fragrance or resonance I know equal to that produced by the Jackleg rock drill operating at full bore; no other sight that matches that of walking up to a miner sitting atop a couple of hundred pounds of dynamite and casually finishing up his cigarette; and no more colorful characters than miners who spent the majority of their working lives underground.” R.D. Saunders offers exciting stories, builds memorable characters, and makes history come alive in Underground and Radioactive: Adventures of a Uranium Miner in 1970s New Mexico.
This book is about mining. No! Wait! Come back. The book is absolutely amazing. Okay, maybe I should have led with that, but luckily, you are still here. Although the book is, in fact, about one man’s experiences in his time working in a uranium mine in New Mexico, it is also about so much more than that.
This book is about American culture in the 1970’s, perseverance, hard-work, incredible skill, and the unique challenges of working in an environment that many of us have never even thought much about. All of these themes are presented to the fortuitous reader with a healthy serving of humor and complemented with excellent writing.
Underground and Radioactive by R.D. Saunders is a non-fiction book chronicling the times leading up to and during his employment at Kermac Nuclear Fuels Corporation at Section 35, one of the uranium mines in the Ambrosia lake area, New Mexico. Saunders tells us of his college experiences and his employment opportunities (and sometimes lack thereof) which led him to him to Section 35, his experiences getting hired for the company, and his time working for Kermac. He details for the reader the trials and tribulations a new employee at a company like this needs to undergo, the hierarchy of employment working underground, the nature of the work itself, and many of the dangers inherent in the work. This is a very personal tale of Saunders’ own experiences and although it is riddled with plenty of extremely informative information about uranium mining (or any type of mining in general), I would prefer to classify it as a continual collection of anecdotes that introduce the reader to a life they have likely never imagined. These anecdotes inform, destroy some stereotypes (and likely enhance some others), imbibe immense respect for those doing these jobs, spark internal reflection into how you would personally do in these situations, and even laugh out loud.
Quite bluntly, I cannot say enough how much I enjoyed this book. I loved the descriptions of the mining community and how every single inch of respect gained during employment is solely earned on the coattails of hard work (and often keeping your mouth shut). I loved reading about the ladder of employment that one climbs while working at a place like Section 35. Just because you work underground doesn’t mean that you are a miner. You are an underground laborer and can only hope that the crappy (sometimes literally – Saunders had a stint filling in the mine’s underground latrines for a while) jobs will lead to more interesting positions such as a miner’s assistant (or eventually an actual miner). I thoroughly enjoyed reading about how Saunders managed to climb these rungs over a relatively short period of time due to his hard work, commitment, and sometimes luck. One chapter of particular note and interest for me was both a lead-in to an upcoming story and something that we surface dwellers would rarely think about: darkness. Saunders explains how a mine is a place of complete and utter darkness (if you turn the light off); there is absolutely no light around whatsoever. This can be terrifying, peaceful, dangerous, and disorienting all at the same time. He tells anecdotes of dead headlamp batteries stranding miners for hours on end and even of a mysterious light that literally haunted one of his mining stopes. I think one of my biggest takeaways from this book, besides the pure and simple enjoyment I had reading it, was the utmost respect I have for those that work in mines like this. Not only is it absolutely grueling, thankless work but there is much more to the work than meets the eye. There is an extremely acute instinct and intelligence required to be a successful miner. I learned that there is a definite science to detonating charges underground. You need multiple holes, in distinct patters, timing just perfectly, such that one explosion leaves room for the next to expand, and so on. Beyond this, a miner needs to be so in tune with his surroundings that he is able to foresee every possible consequence of even the smallest actions he takes (at least if he wants to get out alive). I wish I could fill this page with all of the great anecdotes and things that I learned while reading Underground and Radioactive but I guess I’ll just have to let you read them for yourselves.
If I was forced to say one thing that I disliked about this book, it would have to be that the title is somewhat misleading. Undoubtedly the “Underground” in the title works quite well, but quite honestly, there is nothing “Radioactive” at all in the book. Besides the fact that this book is talking about mining uranium ore, there is only one mention of radioactivity at all. Saunders presents a minor (excuse the pun) nugget of information that a small chunk of uranium ore has about as much radiation as a bunch of bananas. I realize that using radioactive in the title is likely an attention grab to make it sound more interesting, but it has little to do with the book.
If you haven’t guessed by now, I loved this book, and it is with distinct ease that I rate it 4 out of 4 stars. In Underground and Radioactive Saunders gives the reader an enlightening glimpse into a world many of us will never see or know anything about. All the while, he makes it entertaining, informative, and downright interesting. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who reads non-fiction and loves learning new things in a fun manner. If you absolutely, 100%, only read fiction, I guess this one wouldn’t be for you. If you find yourself thinking too hard about whether or not you should read this book, go with your gut and follow the advice that one of the miners Saunders worked for gives, “It just doesn’t pay to be doing too much thinking.”
Underground and Radioactive is now available at most e book retailers and paperback. My publisher is McFarland Books and they have a great site for browsing quite a few topics as well as for ordering my book. I like to browse their site for biographies and memoirs. Even if I don’t include myself, they have some exceptional authors so please browse their catalog. I highly recommend it.
In my soon to be released book, Underground and Radioactive, I talk about what it was like working underground mining uranium at Ambrosia Lake, NM during the 1970’s. It wasn’t until recently that I looked into how uranium is mined today. I guess I assumed that although there aren’t any working mines in the Ambrosia Lake area today that wherever the new mines are the process of extracting the ore is the same or similar. What a shock to learn of the improvements in the mining process. Today it’s a much more efficient process and highly mechanized as opposed to the more labor intensive ore extraction techniques we used. Mining uranium 40 years ago seems almost prehistoric compared to today. People still go underground to get at the ore and while it seems routine to the people doing it the reality it is not. I’m sure todays miners have some interesting stories to tell just like I do.