Rowland Bismark's Reviews > A Yellow Raft in Blue Water

A Yellow Raft in Blue Water by Michael Dorris
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's review
Jun 21, 2010

really liked it
Read in January, 2007

THE NOVEL IS DIVIDED INTO three sections narrated by three different Native American women: Rayona, Christine, and Ida. Rayona’s narrative begins at the hospital, where she is playing cards with her mother, Christine, who drinks heavily and is frequently hospitalized. Rayona’s father, Elgin, arrives and argues with Christine. Rayona leaves for the parking lot and finds Christine trying to break into their car. Christine says she is going to crash the car so Rayona can collect the life insurance payment. Rayona forces her way into the car and she and her mother drive off. Christine decides to leave their home in Seattle and return to the reservation in Montana where she grew up. Christine and Rayona spend the night packing and leave the next day.

Misunderstandings between characters occur throughout the novel, and Dorris puts us in the unusual position of being able to see both sides of some arguments. There are three different but overlapping story lines with three different narrators who occasionally report the same event from differing points of view. These multiple narrators demonstrate how three characters who should be very close to one another can misunderstand each other, at times dramatically. As the novel opens, for example, Rayona is at the hospital visiting Christine, whose actions seem melodramatic, irresponsible, and irrational. However, when this scene is revisited in Christine’s story, we learn that Christine has just found out she has less than six months to live, and she wounded by the lack of sympathy from both her daughter and her ex-husband.

Likewise, though Ida comes off as rather cold and resentful to others—she herself admits this is an apt description—her personal life at least makes her temperament seem forgivable or understandable. If Christine and Rayona knew Ida’s history, they would understand that her coldness is her reaction to the treatment she has received throughout her life. Dorris presents the defining events of his characters’ lives, the ones that shape who they are and how they react to the world. In the cases of Christine and Ida, such events often remain secret and inspire negative reactions from the novel’s other characters. Only when we are given access to a character’s life and thoughts can we hope to understand that character’s actions.

In the end, A Yellow Raft in Blue Water favors family as a means of support, but the novel also questions how the problems of one generation can be passed to the next. Ida, Christine, and Rayona each represent a different generation of the same family, and each generation resonates with the lives of those who came before. The secrets that characterize Ida’s life create a number of misunderstandings between the three women. Neither Rayona nor Christine can understand the events that influence them, and a great deal of confusion and misunderstanding grows between mother and daughter. The events surrounding Christine’s birth and adoption by Ida resonate throughout the novel. Ida is the only person to witness these events, but they are so powerful that they affect the way she raises Christine, who in turn passes their effect on to Rayona.

Finding one’s place is a crucial element of growing up, and since growing up is a part of each of the novel’s three stories, each of the three chief characters struggles to belong. Ida never really has the opportunity to find her place or assert herself, and she quickly gives up any hope of successfully battling the currents that drive her life. Ida tries to come to peace with the path her life has taken but she remains resentful. Christine, on the other hand, has many opportunities that Ida lacks, and she takes full advantage of them. Christine tries on a number of identities, looking for one that fits: she tries first to be daring, then religious, then social and even somewhat promiscuous. None of these identities fulfills Christine, however, so she looks for herself in other people. She finds comfort in being Lee’s sister, and then Elgin’s husband, but the comfort does not last. Only when Rayona is born does Christine find her true place. She feels that Rayona gives her life meaning, and though she continues to live her wild life, she knows that, in the end, whatever she does must be for Rayona.

Rayona’s identity is more precarious than her mother’s. Although Rayona knows the identities of her parents, Elgin is largely absent and Christine is not exactly motherly. Rayona longs for a place in a family, so she clings to the love expressed in the letter she finds at Bearpaw Lake instead of looking to something that is actually part of her life. Rayona also struggles with her racial and physical identity, as she is of mixed race and gangly appearance. She is an outsider in almost every way and indulges in escapism. Once Rayona discards Ellen’s letter, however, we see that she finally comes to feel comfortable with her mother and her own identity. For Rayona, an integral part of finding her identity is trying on a fictitious one and realizing that even the dreamiest circumstances she can imagine do not make her hurt less. Rayona’s journey is ultimately less about figuring out who she is than it is about reconciling herself to her identity.

Faith is one of the more elusive elements of the novel, but it is an issue that each of the protagonists confronts. Rayona, Christine, and Ida have very different experiences with faith and the church. Rayona, abandoned by her parents and ignored by Ida, turns to the church for security. In her relationship with Father Tom, it appears as if Rayona has found someone who cares about her and whom she can trust. However, the basis for this trust turns out to be illusory, and in the end Rayona finds the security she needs only with her mother. Ida, on the other hand, does find a meaningful relationship, and the closest thing she has to a mutual understanding, in her relationship with Father Hurlburt. In contrast to the somewhat devious Father Tom, Father Hurlburt is one of the few people who shares Ida’s secrets. At times Father Hurlburt seems to be the only person who thinks Ida is worth being around. Ida has not lived a perfect life by Christian standards, something that her sister, Pauline, is sure to point out. Father Hurlburt, however, never judges Ida, and he is able to look past religious dogma and become her close friend. Finally, Christine’s religious faith wavers over the course of her life. She shows a strong capacity for faith in her early life, but when a critical element of her faith is proven wrong, Christine completely turns her back on religion.

Most of the religious figures in the novel are portrayed as malicious, absurd, or a combination of both. Though resentment toward the presence of the Holy Martyrs Mission on the reservation is obvious from the very beginning of the novel, a feeling lingers that faith is good and helpful for whomever it touches. For Rayona, Ida, and Christine, faith is sometimes vague or obscured, even warped and dangerous, yet it can support them when they least expect it.

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