Cloud Chamber

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

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....

(The entire section is 1916 words.)