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...
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A Yellow Raft in Blue Water, Michael Dorris’ first novel, chronicles incidents in the lives of his three women narrators. Readers have embraced the book, finding the story to be a compelling look at mothers and daughters. The novel opens with Rayona, a fifteen-year-old girl who is part Native American and part black. When her mother moves her to Montana to stay with her grandmother on a reservation, Rayona’s mixed heritage makes her the target of prejudiced teens, damaging her already fragile self-esteem.
Eventually Rayona leaves the reservation and meets an understanding couple, who invite her to live with them. In Sky and Evelyn’s modest home, Rayona feels accepted and begins to value commitment, self-sacrifice, and honesty as prime ways to define oneself. By the novel’s end, Rayona develops the confidence and self-respect she needs to function in the tribal community and to be accepting of its diverse members.
Rayona learns to accept Christine and Ida, the other two main characters. Early in Christine’s story, her sense of identity is complicated by an emotionally distant mother, who insists on being called “Aunt Ida.” Christine’s belief that she started life “in the hole” sends her on a quest for acceptance that leads to promiscuity, alcohol abuse, the fathers of her two children, and, finally, a fatal illness. As her life is ending, she moves toward harmony with herself, finally content simply to be Christine, a woman defined by the love of a good friend and forgiving family members.
Ida’s story weaves together the autobiographies of all three women. During her teen years, her identity is negated by a family secret: She is not Christine’s mother but her half sister. Ida’s father and aunt, Christine’s biological parents, persuade Ida to pretend the baby is hers, saving the family from embarrassment. Ida’s true sense of self is obscured by the roles she plays and the tales she has been spinning for forty years. As her story closes, she is tentatively considering an honest relationship with Rayona.
That Rayona, Christine, and Ida are Native American women struggling with poverty and abandoned by most of the men in their lives motivates their strength and independence. Diverse readers have identified with the three’s emotions and experiences.