A Yellow Raft in Blue Water

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 830

It is all too easy, while piously lamenting the fate of traditional Indian cultures, to ignore the present-day realities of Indian life--conditions less amenable to romanticizing. There is television on the reservation, and a woman whose son was killed in Vietnam (where Indian casualties were disproportionately high) watches soap operas every day, arguing aloud with the foolish characters on the screen. Others have left the reservation, intermarried. A YELLOW RAFT IN BLUE WATER, with other strong books by Native American writers, tells part of our missing history as only fiction can, from the inside.

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The novel is divided into three parts, each with a different narrator. Part 1, set in the 1980’s and ranging from Seattle to a reservation in Montana, is narrated by fifteen-year-old Rayona Taylor. The daughter of a black man and an Indian woman, Rayona has an extra load of problems on top of the usual burdens of adolescence. Reared largely by her mother, she has had to learn to take care of herself. She tells her story in a winning way, with a teenager’s familiar mixture of irony and self-doubt. Part 2 is narrated by Rayona’s mother, Christine. Some of the events recounted by the daughter in part 1 are replayed from the mother’s point of view; most of this section, though, flashes back to reservation life in the 1960’s, when, disappointed by the failure of an apocalyptic prophecy, Christine rejected the superstition-ridden Catholicism that had fueled her girlhood piety and began to live with self-destructive heedlessness. The novel’s concluding section, by far the shortest of the three, steps back yet another generation, to the 1940’s; here, too, scenes from preceding sections take on new meaning as they are retold from another perspective.

This first novel is not without flaws. The language of the first-person narrators (especially after Rayona’s section) frequently lacks credibility; one thinks: This character would not express herself that way. The supporting characters are too predictable. There are moments of reverse racism, including a silly contrast between English and the Indian language that is kept alive even in Rayona’s generation. Michael Dorris’ genuine achievement, however, makes this a promising debut, and many readers will be looking forward to his next book.


Broyard, Anatole. “Eccentricity Was All They Could Afford.” The New York Times Book Review, June 7, 1987, 7. Broyard observes that in A Yellow Raft in Blue Water Dorris describes a dying culture. The reviewer also notes that there is not much conventional plot but that the book’s women are beautifully realized, and that the real movement of the novel lies in the way the three versions of their story comment on and harmonize with one another.

Chavkin, Allan, and Nancy Feyl Chavkin. Conversations with Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994. A gathering of interviews with Dorris and his wife that have appeared in various sources since the late 1980’s. The interviews also cast light on the values—literary, ethical, spiritual— that inform the couple’s work. Indispensable to any serious study of either writer.

Cowart, David. “ The Rhythm of Three Strands’: Cultural Braiding in Dorris’s A Yellow Raft in Blue Water.” The Journal of the Association for the Studies of American Indian Literature 8 (Spring,...

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