The Complexity of History

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1613

Michael Dorris' A Yellow Raft in Blue Water develops an intricate plot structure that weaves together the lives of three Native American women. Instead of using an all-knowing narrator to tell their stories from a single, consistent perspective, however, Dorris has each character narrate one section of the story from her own biased perspective. Consequently, the novel's three main characters all assume dual functions as combined character-narrators. While this multiplication of character-narrators may initially seem to be a minor part of the plot, a careful reader will recognize that it radically alters the entire experience of reading the novel because the three narrators frequently offer different interpretations of the same event.

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When this happens, the reader cannot simply continue reading passively while waiting for the "true" narrator to finally explain what happened because none of the character-narrators has access to all of the facts, and all of the characters are biased by their own experiences and emotions. Instead, the reader must play a more active role in interpreting the novel either by deciding which narrator's story seems most believable or by combining the most reliable pieces from each narrator's story into a coherent whole. This task is made more difficult, however, because Dorris reverses the order of the story. Instead of beginning with the oldest character, Aunt Ida, he begins with the youngest character, Rayona, and works backwards through time.

Since important information about the characters' pasts is not revealed until the end of the novel, the reader must continually reinterpret everything as each narrator reveals new information about the past. In this sense, A Yellow Raft in Blue Water is not simply a story about three Native American women, but at a deeper level it is also a story about the process of interpretation itself: it explores how people's experiences, biases, and preconceptions influence their explanations of events. This makes the experience of reading the novel more exciting because the reader must constantly reevaluate both the events described in the novel and the narrators who are telling the story.

While William Faulkner, Gertrude Stein, and many other modernist writers have also created novels with multiple narrators, Dorris' use of multiple narrators in A Yellow Raft in Blue Water is particularly interesting because all of his narrators are Native American women. Consequently, Dorris' novel is not just generally about how the world is seen differently by different people, but it is specifically about how gender and ethnicity influence our experiences and understanding. While one might assume that it would be easier for Dorris to represent Native Americans than women because he is part Modoc but not a woman, the critical response to Dorris's work seems to suggest the opposite. Some critics actually argue that Dorris' representations of Native Americans are not strong enough, and Dorris himself has frequently stated that his fiction does not seek to promote any particular Native American agenda. On the other hand, most critics and readers generally agree that Dorris' representations of women are quite convincing.

As Dorris has explained in various interviews, his ability to understand women comes partly from his own experiences living with many strong women: his mother, grandmothers, aunts, and wife. In addition, his wife, Louise Erdrich, is a famous Native American novelist herself, and their close collaboration has also helped Dorris write about women from a woman's perspective. While reading the novel, therefore, it is important to pay particular attention to how both gender and ethnicity influence the characters' lives. The most significant events in these women's lives, such as bearing and/or...

(The entire section contains 5149 words.)

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Critical Overview