A Yellow Raft in Blue Water

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

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.

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....

(The entire section is 830 words.)