A Yellow Raft in Blue Water explores relationships among four generations of a Native American family. The novel is organized into three sections, each narrated by a woman of the family: the first section by Rayona, a girl of fifteen; the second, by Christine, her mother; and the third by Aunt Ida, generally supposed to be Christine’s mother. Moving backward through the three generations, the book gradually illuminates the origins of the tensions still poignantly felt by the characters.
Structurally, and perhaps thematically, Christine is at the center. She is terminally ill, but neither Elgin, the estranged husband with whom she still shares occasional brief reconciliations, nor Rayona, their daughter, is willing to acknowledge this truth. After all, Rayona tells herself, her mother has been a regular customer of the Indian Health Service in Seattle. And Elgin has other things on his mind: He has decided to put his relationship with another woman on a permanent footing. Leaving the hospital, Christine, accompanied by Rayona, points her battered car toward the Native American reservation in Montana where she grew up and which she left more than twenty years before.
As Rayona sees it, when they arrive at the reservation, Christine dumps her daughter on the doorstep of the woman who has always insisted on being called Aunt Ida, even by her daughter Christine. Where Christine has gone, Rayona does not know, but life with Aunt Ida is intolerable. When Father Tom suggests that Rayona accompany him to a “Teens for Christ” convention, Rayona is unenthusiastic, but at least it might make a change. Along the way, some abortive sexual fumbling occurs, and the embarrassed Father Tom, who was the instigator, is relieved when Rayona decides she will go back to Seattle rather than return to the reservation.
Rayona never makes it to Seattle. She finds work at Bearpaw Lake State Park and enjoys something that vaguely resembles a family life with Evelyn, a superficially hard-bitten but fundamentally generous woman, and Sky, her faded hippie husband. Attending a rodeo with Evelyn and Sky, Rayona enjoys a surprising triumph. Riding in place of her cousin Foxy Cree, who is too drunk to perform, Rayona wins...
(The entire section is 914 words.)