Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 914
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 an award and discovers a talent. The horse, it turns out, belongs to Dayton Nickles, an old friend of Christine’s brother Lee, who was a great rider. Dayton brings Rayona back to the reservation and to Christine.
In Christine’s view, she has not abandoned Rayona. Accepting the inevitability of her death, Christine hoped to place Rayona under the care of Aunt Ida, who is, after all, the girl’s grandmother. In the face of Aunt Ida’s cold greeting, Christine fled because she no longer had the strength to fight, and because she did not want Rayona to see her mother brought low.
Christine explains none of this to Rayona; she has never been one to explain herself. Yet it is part of her narrative, as is the story of her relationship with her brother Lee. The relationship was intense enough to make Christine jealous of Dayton, Lee’s best friend. Spurred by this jealousy, she goads Lee, whom the reservation regards as symbolizing the hope of the future, into enlisting in the military, thus pointing him in the direction of his death. Christine left the reservation even before Lee did, and it was on the day that Dayton’s letter informed her of her brother’s death that she met Elgin.
It is, ironically, to Dayton that a dying Christine turns for support after leaving Rayona at Aunt Ida’s. Dayton left the reservation himself, but he has returned after serving time in jail on a charge of having sexually molested a teenaged boy. Dayton makes Christine welcome, and it is he who reunites Christine and Rayona.
Aunt Ida’s narrative brings the novel to its conclusion. If Ida has always insisted that Christine call her Aunt Ida, that is because she is not Christine’s mother. Christine’s biological mother is Clara, the sister of Aunt Ida’s mother; Christine’s father is Lecon, Aunt Ida’s father. The relationship had developed when Clara had come to nurse her ailing sister. Scandal was avoided by a ruse that created the impression that the child’s mother was the fifteen-year-old Ida, while the father was unknown.
Ida reared Christine, but always in the fear that Clara might reclaim her daughter at any time. This fear, in turn, created in Ida a fear of the pain that might arise for both Ida and Christine should Christine come to depend on Ida’s love.
It was different with Lee. Lee was truly Ida’s. His father was Willard Pretty Dog, a disfigured veteran of World War II, but not even Willard knows this. No one can take Lee away; Ida can love him openly. This, and not the preference for the male child that Christine had supposed, explains the difference in Ida’s treatment of the two.
Only Father Hurlburt, the priest who becomes Ida’s most trusted friend, knows the truth in all this. He is with Ida as the novel ends. It is the day on which Christine, still an adolescent, loses her faith, a faith she will recover as she approaches death. In the dark, Father Hurlburt cannot see what Ida is doing. He is a loyal friend and a good man, but, as a man with cut hair, he does not recognize the rhythm of braiding.