The Characters

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Three powerful women, each representing a different generation, dominate the novel. Each of these women—Rayona, the fifteen-year-old girl; Christine, her mother; and Aunt Ida, supposedly Christine’s mother—also functions as the narrator of one of the novel’s three parts. It is, then, above all through their own voices and through the thoughts, feelings, and perceptions expressed in those voices that readers come to know the characters. In Rayona, readers recognize the adolescent’s uncertainties about her own identity and her place in the world. For Rayona, these anxieties are intensified by her mixed racial heritage and by the instabilities of her family life. It is no wonder that she is tempted to borrow an identity when she reads the letter the solid, middle-class De Marcos have written to their daughter Ellen. Yet it is no surprise that Rayona is able to leave this bourgeois fantasy behind, as her experience at the rodeo and her reconciliation with the mother whose illness Rayona can now accept allow her to come to terms with who she herself is.

Christine speaks on the run. Staying in one place, physically or emotionally, has never been her strongest trait. She went through a series of boys and men on the reservation, which she left years ago. She has never settled in a single place. She thought that in her relationship with Elgin she was settling on a single man, but when Elgin began to wander, it was not in Christine’s nature to stand still. Now she is in a hurry. She has, she knows, only a short time to live, and she must get her life into whatever kind of shape it can now assume. Her return to the reservation allows her to reestablish some degree of continuity with her past. She faces the destructive consequence of her past jealousy and, in doing so, becomes open to friendship with Dayton. Yet she is still concerned for the future: What will become of Rayona?

The third member of this trio is Ida. Like Rayona and Christine, Ida faced a crisis in her midteens, and the consequences of that crisis are felt by the two younger women. The obligation of caring for Christine and the fear of losing her have to a considerable degree determined the face Ida presents to the world, even to those closest to her. Fear kept Ida from identifying the father of Lee, her natural son; what if the father one day decided to claim the son? When, in the first two parts of the novel, readers see Ida through the eyes of Rayona and Christine, she seems distant, forbidding, and unwelcoming. It is only when she is finally allowed to speak for herself that she is revealed as a woman of powerful feelings, capable of moral heroism.

Each woman tells in her narrative more than she will ever tell either of the others. Christine will die in the belief that Aunt Ida is her mother and that Ida has never allowed her daughter to call her by her proper name, Mama.

Characters Discussed

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Rayona Taylor

Rayona Taylor, the fifteen-year-old daughter of American Indian Christine George Taylor and African American Elgin Taylor. After Rayona’s parents separate, she is brought up by her alcoholic mother. When Christine becomes seriously ill as a result of her drinking, she is committed to a detoxification ward. Rayona helps her to escape, and they drive to the Montana reservation where Christine was reared. When they arrive, Christine deserts Rayona and leaves her with Ida. Father Tom, a young Catholic priest new to the reservation, recruits Rayona into a parish youth group known as the “God Squad.” He invites her to a weekend youth rally in Helena, and on the way they stop for a swim in Bearpaw Lake. Tom feigns drowning. Rayona rescues him and drags him onto a yellow raft in the middle of the lake. He makes sexual advances toward her and blames her for his actions. Appalled at his own behavior, Tom deserts Rayona, and she finds herself homeless and alone. She wanders into Bearpaw State Park and meets Sky and Evelyn. She stays with them during the summer and works on the maintenance crew at the park. At the end of the season, Evelyn and Sky drive Rayona back to the reservation to find Christine. They arrive on the day of the annual rodeo. Rayona meets her cousin, Foxy Cree. He is scheduled to ride but is too drunk. He convinces Rayona to impersonate him and ride in his place. Rayona accepts the challenge and rides Dayton Nichols’ feisty horse, Babe. She is thrown three times but refuses to admit defeat and remounts. Her determination and courage win the admiration of the crowd, and the judges award her a prize. When she steps to the podium to accept, she reveals her true identity. Evelyn and Sky leave her in the care of Dayton, who takes her home to be reunited with Christine.

Christine George Taylor

Christine George Taylor, Rayona’s mother and the supposed daughter of Ida. Feeling unloved by Ida, craving attention, and living in the shadow of her talented brother Lee, Christine turns to men and alcohol for solace in her teenage years. Although she admires Lee, she is intimidated by him. She realizes that his reputation as an up-and-coming member of the Indian community enhances her own social position. When Lee and Dayton protest against the Vietnam War draft, Christine believes that Lee’s reputation will be damaged, thereby diminishing her own social status; she convinces him to join the service. Later, Christine moves to Seattle, meets Elgin Taylor, becomes pregnant by him, and marries him. After a rocky marriage of fifteen years, Elgin leaves Christine for the last time while she is in the hospital recovering from her latest binge. Sick, hurt, and afraid, Christine drives to the Montana reservation with Rayona and leaves her with Ida. Still unwelcome at Ida’s home, she moves in with Dayton.

Ida George

Ida George, the mother of Lee and foster mother of Christine. Although Ida is thought to be Christine’s mother and Rayona’s grandmother, she actually is Christine’s half-sister and cousin. When Ida’s aunt Clara (her mother’s sister) became pregnant by Ida’s father, the family agreed to conceal the scandal by claiming that Ida was the one who was pregnant. Ida accompanied Clara, who posed as Ida’s guardian, to a Catholic home for unwed mothers in Denver. After giving birth, Clara remained in Denver and Ida returned to the reservation with Christine and reared her as her own child. After the death of her parents several years later, Ida lived for a short time with disabled Korean War veteran Willard Pretty Dog, Lee’s father. Ida and he separated, and she refused to acknowledge him or anyone else as Lee’s father. Ida reared Lee and Christine as brother and sister, never revealing to them the truth about their parentage.

Lee George

Lee George, Christine’s foster brother and cousin. An accomplished rodeo rider and performer of traditional Indian dances, he is well thought of on the reservation and is expected to be a strong tribal leader. He is killed in the Vietnam War and is given a hero’s burial.

Dayton Nichols

Dayton Nichols, Lee’s best friend. Christine, envious of his friendship with Lee, tries to seduce Dayton as a means of breaking up their relationship. He rebuffs her, and she resents him even more. Years later, after Lee’s death, her illness and their common memories of Lee heal and bring them together.

Evelyn

Evelyn and

Sky

Sky, Rayona’s surrogate parents when she works at Bearpaw State Park. Their home is the first stable environment she has known.

Father Hurlbert

Father Hurlbert, a Catholic priest who becomes Ida’s best friend and only confidant.

Themes and Characters

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Establishing distinct, realistic characters is at the center of Michael Dorris's approach to writing fiction, and the themes of this novel are revealed in the first-person narratives. "Character is the base of all story, as far as I'm concerned," he wrote in a 1996 Booklist column: "An idiosyncratic character plus a demanding situation equals literature, and strangely enough, the more particular the circumstances, the more universal the recognition." A Yellow Raft in Blue Water reveals Dorris's ability to render several generations of women's stories in complex, believable ways. Character is revealed in the details that each narrator chooses, in her reflections on herself and the world around her, in the striking ways each remembers the same scenes in slightly different ways.

In a 1995 essay for The Horn Book Magazine, Dorris explained that writing a story is a matter of listening to and becoming one with the voice of an invented narrator:

if a writer has sufficiently laid the groundwork, characters inevitably surprise, shock, entertain, disappoint, or make proud. An author, like a listener or a reader, is, after all, just another kind of interactive audience, witness to the unpredictable and fascinating drama of human beings set in motion.

What makes this novel especially compelling is the way the writer layers each story on the others, allowing them to overlap and to reveal the strengths and limitations of each narrator's view.

Dorris begins this drama with Rayona, who at age fifteen is wrestling with many issues that young adults face. She is concerned about her mother, who this time may be genuinely ill, but who has not revealed the precise nature of the illness to her daughter. Rayona tests the limits of her power with her mother, sometimes obeying and sometimes challenging her, sometimes understanding and sometimes feeling mystified by her mother's behavior. Her father, a postal worker with a propensity for moving in and out of their lives, is someone that Rayona both idolizes and does not really know. Rayona struggles to fit in wherever she goes—at school, in the church youth group on the reservation, among the college boys she works with at the state park, in the extended family whose ties to one other and to her are more blurred and complicated than she realizes.

Many of Rayona's questions are related to identity, and the novel explores the intricate ways people figure out who they are. Her racial identity is a source of wonder for Rayona, who has always lived in a world where one language is spoken at home, another in the world. She has never known her father's African-American family, but her skin is dark, and people on the reservation—taunting her about her "Coppertone tan"—consider her more black than Indian. Her eccentric grandmother, who speaks only Indian and seems foreign, is a mystery to Rayona—someone who, when she once called her "Grandma," sharply corrected her with a reminder to say "Aunt Ida."

Her identity as a young woman is also a source of concern for Rayona. Lonely and adrift without adult guidance, Rayona is drawn in and then confused by the attention given to her by Father Tom, a priest as new to the reservation as she is. Rayona is large, able to do men's work at the state park. She is able to fool rodeo judges into thinking she is a boy; when she competes, her determination makes up for her lack of skill in earning her a special award. Rayona admires Ellen DeMarco, a blonde lifeguard whose body, voice, and mannerisms captivate Rayona's male co-workers, and Evelyn Dial, a gruff cook who refuses to take nonsense from anyone. Yet Rayona knows that she is not like these women, not like her mother, not like her grandmother. She spends considerable time studying her appearance and comparing herself to her relatives, and she carries a scrap of a letter she found at the state park, imagining that the loving parents who wrote it are her own parents vacationing in Switzerland.

Many of Rayona's concerns are paralleled in the section Christine narrates. As a teenager, Christine also struggled with her identity as a young woman and with her relationship to her mother. However, she tried to find her way in the world by engaging in adventurous, even risky, behavior and learning how to attract men's attention. When she feels mistreated by her mother and others on the reservation, Christine set out on her own and found what felt like strength in independence, living a little recklessly in a big city.

Because Christine's narrative is told from the perspective of a woman in her forties, however, this section of the novel wrestles with themes that Rayona has yet to understand. Many of these are focused on relationships, as Christine confronts her own terminal illness and the circumstances that have shaped her life.

As she recalls incidents from her childhood, Christine reflects on her relationship with her charismatic brother, Lee, who seemed to be her mother's favorite and whose memory—he was killed in Vietnam— still plagues her with a sense of loss and guilt. In describing her relationship with her husband, Elgin, Christine reveals her sexual attraction to this man, a passion so deep that she cannot consider divorce despite his blatant infidelity and frequent disappearances for months at a time. She considers her relationship with her mother, portrayed even in Christine's midlife as a power struggle characterized by anger and poor communication. She recalls many of the scenes Rayona describes, adding a mother's perspective, and tells the reader details that she keeps from her daughter in an attempt to protect her. The view of parenting and negligence that Rayona sketches is immediately challenged by Christine's layer of the story.

Another theme that emerges strongly in the middle section of this novel is the need to reconcile oneself with the past. Christine confesses to having less than admirable roles in many scenes: drunken nights, a failed attempt to seduce her brother's best friend, haphazard attempts to assert herself that come out hostile and self-absorbed. Facing her own mortality, however, Christine gradually forgives herself and everyone else. She learns to hear love and concern in her mother's offer, "You call for me . . . if you want to," and Dorris gives the impression that Christine will call for Ida as she grows too frail to care for herself, that she recognizes her mother's unconventional attempts to show affection. Christine teaches Rayona to drive, gives her a silver turtle ring from her own finger, and allows her daughter the adult pleasure of paying for lunch out of her own earnings. These small reconciliations, the novel suggests, may be all we can hope for, all we need in the end.

The third section, narrated by Ida, echoes the previous sections in that it tells of one woman's struggle to define herself in her teens and early adulthood. It is much briefer than the other sections, however, suggesting not only Ida's discomfort with self-expression, but the older woman's understanding that sometimes the less said, the better. One cannot read this section without appreciating the wisdom of age, the way the years provide lenses for seeing the self and the world. Ida describes her life as a "ring of mountains, close together and separated by deep chasms." She is well aware of the steep roads, the "log bridges of . . . memory" she needs to connect her experiences. At several points in the novel, respect for one's elders becomes critical, but Ida's narrative is itself a careful revelation of this theme: older people know more than they let on, she suggests, and their lives are stories—big as mountain ranges— that they constantly revise and bequeath to others.

Much of Ida's narrative focuses on the idea of choice: how her early life was shaped by the choices others made for her, how she later learned to choose and wished she had said "no" more often, how she continues to wrestle with accepting Christine's choices. Although Christine does not know the details of her mother's early life, Ida tells the story of her sacrificing reputation and independence to save face for her family. As children, both Christine and Lee were bewildered by their mother's refusal to provide details about their paternity, a source of irritation to Christine even in adulthood. Ida's story clarifies the reason for this choice, showing the older woman not as distant or cruel, insensitive to her children, but as a caring mother who chose to protect them from truths too painful for them to know. Others may not know what to call her, but Ida knows who she is and how she is connected to the people she loves.

Like her daughter and granddaughter, Ida was forced at several points in her life to consider the importance of physical beauty and the power it brings people, particularly women. At an especially painful moment in her life, when she thinks Christine will be taken from her, Ida holds a scalding ladle to her own cheek, leaving an ugly scar. She is large and abrupt, almost manly in her ability to do physical work, to do difficult things. But she refuses to accept a compromised view of herself as a woman of strength and beauty: when Willard Pretty Dog, whom she has nursed to health after the War, announces that he will stay with her out of loyalty even though she is not beautiful, she rejects him. Ida is careful to nurture a strong sense of self in Christine, who was not especially beautiful as a child, and to temper the admiration that others have for Lee, who was always physically attractive.

Several other themes are woven into the novel: the pull and burden of family ties, the value of friendship, the differences between men and women, inter-generational communication and understanding, the need for personal and social responsibility, the erosion of Native American culture, the difficulty of finding the right language, the persistent connections to place. Each narrator approaches such topics from her own perspective, giving the cumulative effect of added depth with each new telling.

The novel itself becomes a story about storytelling, an illustration about the beauty and limits of language in conveying human experience and emotion, a lesson about the need to listen carefully and to piece together what might be the truth from the scraps each person provides.

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