Cloud Chamber

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1916

In his widely acclaimed novel A Yellow Raft in Blue Water (1987), Michael Dorris wrote about Rayona Taylor and her Indian mother and grandmother. In Cloud Chamber , he details the other aspect of the heritage of Rayona, who is one-half Native American, one-quarter Irish, and one-quarter African American. The...

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In his widely acclaimed novel A Yellow Raft in Blue Water (1987), Michael Dorris wrote about Rayona Taylor and her Indian mother and grandmother. In Cloud Chamber, he details the other aspect of the heritage of Rayona, who is one-half Native American, one-quarter Irish, and one-quarter African American. The story begins with Rayona’s great-great- grandmother, Rose Mannion.

As a beautiful teenage barmaid in a small Irish village in the 1870’s, Rose Mannion is fiercely dedicated to the cause of Irish independence from England. From among her many suitors, she decides to take as her lover a handsome youth named Gerry Lynch who has written a song about her. On the night their love is to be consummated, however, he tells her that he is actually an informer for the British. They make love, the only time in her life Rose will find sexual fulfillment, and then she turns him in to the town’s revolutionary leaders. He is tried by a kangaroo court and, on Rose’s testimony, convicted and executed. Knowing that the British will find out about her role in the episode, Rose chooses Martin McGarry to marry her and go with her to the United States, where they settle in a town near Lexington, Kentucky.

Rose gives birth to Andrew, son of Gerry Lynch, who grows up to be a priest and Rose’s favorite. Her younger son, Robert, goes to work for the railroad and is on the way to being successful when Bridie O’Gara enters the action. Captivated by Andrew but knowing she cannot hope to have him, Bridie sets out to marry Robert, less as a substitute for Andrew than as a way to stay near him. Her appeal, for Andrew, is one of the sources of his discontent with a priest’s life, and he renounces his vows and goes to work as a fireman on the railroad that employs Robert. On his first trip, Andrew is killed in a freak accident. Unable to forgive Robert for living when Andrew is dead, Rose sues the railroad, in the process depriving her surviving son of his livelihood. After attempting to make a living as a journeyman carpenter, Robert comes down with tuberculosis; after an unexplained spell of amnesia, he becomes an invalid and then dies of the disease.

The two daughters of Bridie and Robert, Edna and Marcella, grow up knowing that their mother hates the memory of their father, who provided the only kindness in their lives. Unfortunately, part of Robert’s legacy to them is the disease which killed him. Edna twice spends extended periods of time in a sanatorium, and Marcella is confined once. On her way to recovery, Marcella falls in love with and seduces Earl Taylor, a young African American man who delivers groceries to the sanatorium. Edna, despite her disapproval of the affair, connives in helping her sister elope with Earl. Knowing that their relationship is not only disapproved of but also illegal in Kentucky in the 1930’s, Earl and Marcella move to California, where she gives birth to a son named Elgin.

When World War II invades their lives, Earl joins the Army. He is reported missing and then presumed dead in a boating accident on the Danube River. Along with the personal effects which the Army returns to his widow, there are three rather crude paintings of a village which none of the family members recognize. Marcella and Elgin return to Kentucky, where Elgin becomes the center of the lives of his mother, his aunt, and his grandmother. The women pass him off as part Italian to curious friends and neighbors, and his actual ethnic makeup does not become an issue until he is a teenager. When Elgin reaches maturity, the Vietnam War is raging and he joins the Army, searching for his identity and for some connection to his dead father.

Elgin is not sent to Vietnam. Instead, he is sent to Europe, where he is put to work as a waiter in an officers’ club. He forms a kind of friendship with an African American officer whose interest in Elgin is somewhat ambiguous but not overtly homosexual. On a brief leave, the two men visit the village of Passau, where Earl Taylor was reported to have died, and Elgin receives a series of shocks. The first is the realization that the amateurish paintings which had been returned to his family by the Army depict scenes in the small village. The second occurs when natives in a bar stare at Elgin with something other than the hostility they might be expected to show toward strange black men. They ask him to wait, and they bring to him a young woman who looks just like him. Elgin then learns that his father did not actually die in 1945 but that he had lived for many years in Passau, married a woman there, and fathered the girl whom Elgin has met. Robert died only three years before Elgin’s visit. Elgin resolves never to tell his mother, his aunt, or his grandmother about his discovery. Earl’s motivation in abandoning his American family, deserting from the Army, and settling in Austria is never explained, nor is it clear how he managed to get away with deserting from the Army.

The sisters and their mother find little satisfaction in their lives. Edna, in some ways the strongest of the trio, leads a celibate life, enlivened only by one brief, chaste flirtation on a trip the sisters make to Duluth. On the same trip, a nun whom they visit tells Edna that she clearly has a vocation and should join the nunnery. Like so much else in the lives of these women, this possibility never comes to fruition. Edna will live out her life working at a clerical job that holds little reward for her.

Marcella’s son Elgin never returns to Kentucky to live. Discharged from the Army, he goes to California and communicates with the three McGarry women by phone and by mail but steadfastly refuses to visit them, with the result that they never meet his wife, the Indian woman named Christine. Elgin does bring his daughter Rayona to live with his mother, aunt, and grandmother for a brief time when Christine is ill, but Rayona never feels comfortable with her Kentucky relatives. As soon as she can, she returns to the West to live with her mother. When Christine dies, Rayona goes to the reservation to live with her grandmother, who is known as Aunt Ida.

The final section of Cloud Chamber centers on Rayona and the Indian naming ceremony Aunt Ida has arranged for her. Bridie has died, but Edna and Marcella make the trip from Kentucky to Montana to witness the ceremony. Rayona’s costume, devised by Aunt Ida, is a horror that threatens to ruin Rayona’s day, but the day is saved by the friend who had comforted Christine in her final days and by the arrival of Edna and Marcella (who calls her granddaughter “Ramona”). For her Indian name, the girl has chosen to be called “Rose,” a choice which represents the resolution of the conflicts within the family and the triumph of the strength of women such as Edna, the strongest of them all, who passes her powers on to Rayona.

Michael Dorris has chosen to tell this story of unhappy but vital women through first-person narratives. With two significant exceptions, each of the major characters, beginning with Rose McGarry, tells at least one section of the story, which concludes with the two long sections told in Rayona’s voice. The exceptions are Andrew, the failed priest, and Earl Taylor, Marcella’s husband and Elgin’s father.

On the whole, the narrative device works well. The narrators are individualized, more through their unintentional revelations of their own oddities, preferences, and prejudices than through potentially strained dialects or verbal peculiarities. The story moves at a steady pace, despite the necessity for using flashbacks and the delays in providing necessary information, especially the knowledge that Earl Taylor did not die when his wife and her relatives believed that he had drowned; the truth, or a part of it, is revealed only much later in the novel when Elgin visits Passau and discovers his half sister.

The fact that Andrew has no narrative is the less serious omission, but it does leave unexplained his decision to leave the priesthood. That choice is seen only through the eyes of his mother and his sister-in-law (and briefly through Robert, his brother), who are not neutral, or necessarily trustworthy, observers. Readers have only their belief that Andrew felt as strongly attracted to Bridie as she did to him, and that this attraction was sufficiently strong to lead him to recant his vows and take a menial job with the railroad. Since much of the later action of the novel derives from Rose’s hatred of both Robert and Bridie for what she regards as their responsibility for Andrew’s death, a fuller and more reliable version of his motivation would be useful.

More serious is the absence of information about Earl’s desertion from the Army and from his family. Nothing in Marcella’s narratives about her marriage even suggests a motivation for such behavior; they seem to have had a happy and mutually satisfying life together and to have loved their son equally. Further, this element of the novel involves other improbabilities which demand explanation. There is no indication of why the residents of a small village on the border between Germany and Austria would tolerate, much less welcome, an African American man who is a deserter from his own country’s army, or why they would permit him to marry one of the young women of the village. It is equally unlikely that a desertion such as Earl’s would escape detection by the Army or be ignored by local authorities.

The emphasis on the female characters reflects the fact that they are stronger and more interesting than the males. Martin McGarry, his son Robert, and even Andrew are dominated by the women in the family. Robert’s wasting illness symbolizes their weakness. Earl and Elgin, whatever their reasons may be, choose to run away from these women, highlighting, by contrast, the determination of the women to face their problems, even if they make mistakes and behave cruelly to those they love. The fact that only the women are actually present for the resolution implicit in Rayona’s naming ceremony drives home the point. Rose and Bridie expend their strength in spite, and Marcella dissipates her strength in romantic fantasies, but Edna and Rayona use their powers to a better advantage.

The saga of the Mannion-McGarry-Taylor women, which occupies both Cloud Chamber and its predecessor, A Yellow Raft in Blue Water, comes to an end with Rayona’s naming ceremony. The affirmation of the ending of Cloud Chamber is an appropriate conclusion to the story of these fascinating women. Unfortunately, Michael Dorris committed suicide early in 1997, soon after the publication of Cloud Chamber.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCIII, October 15, 1996, p. 379.

Chicago Tribune. March 2, 1997, XIV, p. 6.

Kirkus Reviews. November 11, 1996, p. 1349.

Library Journal. CXXI, November 15, 1996, p. 87.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. February 16, 1997, p. 13.

The New York Times Book Review. CII, February 9, 1997, p. 11.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, November 11, 1996, p. 55.

Time. CXLIX, February 17, 1997, p. 88.

The Times Literary Supplement. May 16, 1997, p. 22.

U.S. Catholic. May, 1997, p. 46.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVII, January 12, 1997, p. 1.

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