A Yellow Raft in Blue Water

by Michael Dorris

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A Yellow Raft in Blue Water

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1952

A Yellow Raft in Blue Water is Michael Dorris’ first novel. Two features make it a significant debut. First, Dorris, who is of Modoc descent, tells a realistic story of life as it is lived by Native Americans on a Western reservation. By choosing Indian life as his subject and his setting, Dorris broadens the scope of contemporary fiction, which has not often dealt with this area of the American experience. In addition, Dorris chooses to structure the story around first-person accounts by his three main characters, all of whom are female. Thus, he engages in the difficult but rewarding imaginative task of entering the consciousness of characters of the opposite sex—a task no doubt made easier by the collaboration of his wife, Louise Erdrich, who in turn has acknowledged Dorris’ contribution to her novels Love Medicine (1984) and The Beet Queen (1986).

The separate narratives by Rayona, Christine, and Aunt Ida are arranged in reverse chronological order so that the secrets at the heart of the novel’s conflict are revealed gradually, after some misdirection, which is the natural by-product of each narrator’s limited access to truth. Thus, Rayona’s account, the first, establishes one view of her mother. It is largely sympathetic because Rayona loves Christine very much, but she also does not understand many of her mother’s motives. When Christine’s section of the novel reveals those motives, Rayona’s story, in retrospect, takes on greater significance, and the love between mother and daughter evolves into something richer, more subtly textured. Then, as Ida’s perspective is added to the layers of emotion already established, Dorris achieves a remarkable depth in his exploration of the love that gives a family its awesome power to hurt and to heal.

The amazing thing about Dorris’ portrayal of life on the reservation is the way that the traditions and rituals of Indian culture are so completely, almost seamlessly, integrated with the standard American culture of the time. As a high school student, Christine lies in her room listening to “The Teen Beat” and ratting her hair and plastering it down with Ray-Nette. She happens to be on a reservation in Montana, but she could as easily be in a quiet residential suburb in some Midwestern town of the early 1960’s for all these activities do to characterize her. The difference between Christine and her counterpart in the Midwestern suburb is that Christine has also internalized another culture, one less faddish and less modern. She understands the significance of tribal councils and her brother’s skill as a hoop-dancer. She lives in a bilingual household before it becomes fashionable to consider that American children might speak one language at home and another at school.

From the effort to exist in both of these worlds springs an enormous conflict within Christine, and she spends her entire life trying to resolve it. At the opening of her narration she describes that conflict:Everywhere else in the world things were happening—wars, psychedelic drugs, love-ins—and there we were at Holy Martyrs Mission, still writing themes about whether if God could do anything, could He make a rock He couldn’t lift. That kind of s——-. No wonder I was screwed up. You try to make a real world out of what you see on one television channel and what you hear on the radio. You try to put together cute outfits from the secondhand trash from the charity store. You try to have fun when there’s nowhere to go and you might be related to every other boy in town.

Ida has lived all of her life on the reservation, on the same...

(This entire section contains 1952 words.)

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piece of land, in the same house, except for a few months spent in Denver when she was seventeen. The struggle for her is to preserve the integrity of the life she knows. Therefore, she speaks only her native language and pretends to know much less English than she does. Yet she is an inveterate soap-opera fan, and when Christine and Rayona return to the reservation after many years, their first vision of Aunt Ida is of a large woman mowing her lawn in overalls, with the Walkman they have sent her for Christmas blasting away. In this novel it is virtually impossible to escape the blending of the two cultures, even for characters as removed from the mainstream of progress as Ida.

Rayona, on the other hand, has spent her entire life in cities in Washington State. Before she and her mother come back to the reservation during her fifteenth summer, the present time of the novel, she has visited there only once, when she was a toddler, for the funeral of Lee George. Her struggle, then, is to understand how life on the reservation is a part of her and of her mother, to reconcile what she learns there with what she brings with her from the outside world.

For most of the story, Rayona and her mother are separated. The moment they arrive on the reservation, Christine and Ida get into an argument, and Christine runs away, leaving her daughter with Ida, a virtual stranger. Much of what happens as Rayona moves into her mother’s old room and takes up life in the school and church of her mother’s youth mirrors Christine’s experience. Rayona feels unloved and out of place as her mother often did. She finds herself taken in and then disappointed by the church, as Christine did. She does not understand Ida or the old woman’s feelings toward her. By having Rayona experience what Christine experienced, Dorris manages to increase their understanding for each other. Thus, when they are reunited, their relationship is stronger than ever.

At the same time, having Rayona in her home awakens in Ida memories of Christine’s youth and her own. As she recounts those difficult periods in her life, Ida comes to a deeper understanding of how her actions must have affected Christine. She also reveals the sense of loss and betrayal that she herself experienced—linked to church and family, as is the case with Rayona and Christine—and thereby modifies the reader’s negative sense of her as a character. Rayona and Christine have a hard time perceiving any loving or understanding qualities in Ida, but when she herself tells her story, the reader realizes that she is a loving person and also accepts her inability to express that love directly as a logical consequence of her own disappointments.

The feeling of betrayal by the Catholic church that each woman experiences links the three segments of the narrative, yet in none of the three does the narrator judge the church as harshly as she might. Her priest, against his better judgment, allows Ida to be drawn into a deception that forever alters the course of her life, and he later encourages her in a relationship with Willard Pretty Dog that eventually brings her additional heartache. Yet the novel ends with Ida and Father Hurlburt on the roof of Ida’s house, friends despite the heartache that she has known. The thematic implication of their continuing friendship reinforces the lasting bonds between the three main characters and also points up the irony of the painful decisions Ida makes with the priest’s counsel. Along with the pain that each choice brings come the greatest joys of her life.

An overly zealous nun convinces Christine that the world will end if the Russians are not converted to Christ by a specific New Year’s Eve in the 1960’s. When the world does not end, Christine’s faith is shaken, and she sets herself on the dangerous course of reckless living that she follows for most of her life. Tricked once by religion, she refuses to be tricked again. Out of her sense of betrayal, she is forced to develop a cunning and a resourcefulness that are crucial to her survival and to Rayona’s. Conveyed only from her perspective, her hardness toward religion and, eventually, toward family and love would seem like immature overreaction. When Ida’s perspective of the same events is added to Christine’s, the younger woman’s behavior is more sympathetic, more believable.

When Father Tom, a young priest, befriends Rayona, he at first seems to be doing the girl a favor. Her mixed heritage—a black father and an Indian mother—makes her a target for abuse from the other Indian teenagers, and she has nowhere else to turn. Soon, however, Father Tom betrays her and his calling with a clumsy sexual advance. Although he stops short of having sex with her, he blames her for his weakness and leaves her miles from the reservation without any guidance or protection.

Rayona is as resourceful and independent as her mother and Aunt Ida. She is able to transform the negative experience with the priest into a positive lesson in strength and love. She gets a job picking up trash in a state park and learns about the shallow hypocrisies of upper-middle-class life from some of the other summer employees. She also learns that family need not be biologically defined when she moves into the trailer of Evelyn and Sky, a childless couple who take her in while she is working at the park. They love and accept her without making any demands on her. They demonstrate that security and respect can be created out of the oddest of circumstances.

Rayona is reunited with her mother after she triumphs in an unexpected way at a rodeo. She returns to the traditional culture of her Indian heritage and wins an award not for the beauty and excellence of her performance but for the determination and courage she demonstrates in trying to ride a bucking bronco. The award is given to Rayona, but by the end of the novel she shares it symbolically with the other two women, whose lives also display determination and courage far beyond what Rayona or the general public can know.

Much of the pleasure of A Yellow Raft in Blue Water lies in its carefully structured plot. The reader of this novel must trust the author enough to move through the sections of his narrative without understanding the whole of the story and its impact until the end. By re-creating through his narrative technique the natural human tendency to judge and assume as if one’s knowledge at any given moment were complete, and by gradually undercutting the judgments and assumptions that the narrative seems to support, Dorris achieves a remarkable parallel between the readjustments that his characters and his readers must make.

The novel is filled with a richness of detail that makes the characters and the settings vivid and memorable. The vastness of the Western states and the harshness of the climate in Montana are evoked, as is the incredible beauty of the area. Christine’s jobs in Washington, which include a place on the assembly line that produces the black recording boxes that chronicle airline disasters and a stint as a packager of the tossed salads that airlines serve on their dinner trays, are described in a way that makes very real the monotony and dissatisfaction inherent in much blue-collar work. The people and places about which Dorris writes are not immediately familiar to many readers of contemporary fiction, but he makes them accessible and emphasizes their universal qualities in such a way that they become representative of mainstream American life. It is perhaps his major accomplishment that he simultaneously acquaints his audience with a world that they have not known well and enriches their understanding of that best known of all worlds, the family.

Historical Context

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The Status of Native Americans in the 1980s The political situation of Native Americans in the United States is unique. Among many ethnic groups, Indians alone have land called reservations set aside by the government on which they can live without paying the usual land and property taxes. Indians who do not live on reservations pay the same taxes as other citizens. All Indians pay federal and state income taxes and have full voting rights, and receive some special job and health benefits, to which Christine refers. Usually the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs administers reservations. On some reservations, local tribal councils control some political and commercial activities. In 1983, President Reagan issued a policy statement promoting increased economic development on reservations. While many Indian leaders reacted skeptically to the announcement, some reservations have greatly profited from oil, gas, and uranium resources, while others have set up lucrative casinos. On other reservations, the tribal government is a major employer. Both Christine and Dayton hold jobs with the local tribal council, and Lee is being groomed for a political future in the tribal government when he goes off to Vietnam. Courts have generally supported Indian land claims, either by granting repossession (usually of only a portion of the lands claimed) or by payments in exchange for relinquishing of claims. Many reservations, however, remain economically underdeveloped. On one small reservation in Wyoming with an unemployment rate of 80 percent, the suicide rate of 233 per 100,000 is almost twenty times the national average. The rate of alcoholism, an important factor in the characterization of both Lecon and Christine, is a serious problem among Indians. Indians are four times more likely to die from alcoholism than the general population. Dorris explores Indian alcoholism at length in his prize-winning book, The Broken Cord: A Family's Ongoing Struggle with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.

The Indian Power Movement, 1969-1973 During the 1960s, some Indian groups began to press for more economic and political rights. In 1972, the American Indian Movement (AIM) occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Washington; in 1973 AIM members seized Wounded Knee, South Dakota, demanding the return of all lands taken from Indians in violation of treaty agreements. After nine years as a fugitive from prosecution for assault and rioting charges in connection with the seizure, AIM leader Dennis Banks (who received protection in various forms from the governors of both California and New York), finally surrendered in 1983. He served one year of a three-year term before being released in 1985. Like Lee and Dayton, many Indians were inspired by AIM or similar groups to take a stand against the U.S. government in other areas as well, notably in protesting the war in Vietnam. Other pro-Indian activities mentioned in A Yellow Raft in Blue Water include protests over limitation or abrogation of fishing rights and participation in intertribal activities designed to stress Indian unity. Like Christine, however, most Indians rejected these militant tactics. The majority of American-Indians during the Vietnam War were patriotic, as is seen in the favorable way Lee is treated by the tribal elders after he decides to enlist. In 1986 the Grandfather Plaque or Amerind Vietnam Plaque was dedicated at Arlington National Cemetery. Roughly 43,000 Native American combatants served in Vietnam, or one out of every four eligible Indian males.


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One of Michael Dorris's strengths is to create settings that pull readers into the story, constructing detailed landscapes that serve a much greater purpose than serving simply as poetic backdrops. They provide snapshots of landscapes in the American Northwest, especially Montana and Washington, and of a range of homes and public spaces.

Rayona's section of the novel begins in a hospital in Seattle, moves briefly to Tacoma, and settles in and around an Indian reservation in Montana. Rayona notices the world from the passenger seat, commenting on the small towns and the white metal crosses along the highway that show where people have died. The landscape—a blur of fields and mountains and clouds on a horizon that suggests the edge of the world—seems immense to her. But Rayona is careful to describe the details of every small scene she occupies: gas stations, houses on the reservation, the church basement where the "God Squad" holds its meetings, Bearpaw Lake State Park, a trailer she shares with a couple while she is working, and Hill County Fairgrounds, where she makes her debut in a rodeo. Rayona, having grown up in the city, approaches the reservation and the landscape around it with the keen eye of an outsider, as well as with the egocentrism and curiosity of a teenager looking for signs of her own identity in her family's past.

Christine was born on the reservation, and her descriptions of life in the 1960s and 1970s are filled with contradictions: Catholicism and Native-American traditions, patriotism and resistance to the war in Vietnam, a generation that speaks both Indian and English and knows the lyrics of the top- 40 songs. Her narrative also includes scenes from Minot, a city that seemed enormous and exciting to her when she was twenty years old, and from Seattle, where she worked in a factory that made black boxes for airplanes. Each time she returns to the reservation, she sees it differently, and the reader is reminded of the way this isolated setting changes over the years.

In the final section, Ida tells of her girlhood in the 1930s and 1940s, set primarily in the house that she still occupies and—for a brief period—in a Denver convent where she awaited the birth of Christine. Although earlier sections show Ida as an older woman in a cheap black wig, listening to her Walkman as she mows the lawn and sitting entranced by soap operas, Ida's own narrative recalls the house before it had electricity and indoor plumbing, before she began leasing parts of the land to supplement her income. She tells of the food she raises, the important position of the church on the reservation, the ways that the landscape reflects her own limited choices.

Dorris includes many cultural references that ground this novel in real places and times across the mid-to late-twentieth century. Pictures of Jacqueline Kennedy, Elvis Presley and Connie Francis line the walls of Christine's teenage bedroom. Buttons with sayings such as "Indians Discovered Columbus" allude to the Red Power movement that commands the attention of Christine's younger brother, Lee. Ida watches The Guiding Light and, later, All My Children and The People's Court. Televisions, electric ovens, video rentals, and satellite dishes are introduced as new at different points in the book. Traditional Native-American foods such as stew and bread give way to macaroni-and-cheese TV dinners and Reeses' peanut butter cups. Details of clothing, makeup, and hairstyles reveal social classes and the passing of time. World War II and the Vietnam War are significant events in the lives of these characters, and Christine's own choices reflect a transition from the domesticated woman idealized in the 1950s to a woman who travels her own road— even if it is in a battered Volare. These subtle shifts in setting reveal the kinds of changes that each generation has seen, as well as the recurring conflicts that seem to rub people and cultures against one another in new ways.

Literary Style

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Point of View Part of Dorris' genius in the book shows in his telling basically the same story from three different points of view. For example, we first interpret Christine's illness through Rayona's eyes (in critic Michiko Kakutani's words) as "a phony play for sympathy." Later, we see the same scene through Christine's own eyes and realize not only that her illness is real but also (again in Kakutani's words) that "her disappearance constitutes not an act of abandonment but a cowardly attempt to save her daughter from the knowledge of her imminent death." Similarly, at the beginning of the story Rayona believes that Aunt Ida is actually her grandmother but insists that she be called "Aunt" rather then be reminded that Christine was her own illegitimate offspring. In fact, as we learn only in the last section of the novel, Christine is the illegitimate offspring of Ida's father, Lecon, and her aunt, Clara, and Ida is therefore not Christine's mother but rather both her cousin and half-sister. As feminist critic Adalaide Morris has noted, one result of a story made up of similar examples involving this intertwined, intergenerational, multicultural family is a "new first-person plural storyteller" or, in the words of Adrienne Rich, "We who are not the same. We who are many and do not want to be the same." In short, the new "we, the plural" is a shifting coalition of different people, "a site where disparate subjectivities collide, converge, and continue to coexist." Thus, restless and unsatisfied Christine leaves Ida for Seattle, just as Rayona, restless to find her real family, later also leaves Ida, but Rayona and Christine are eventually reunited, despite their differences.

Symbolism and Imagery Dorris' skill in providing concrete descriptions to suggest larger meanings is evident in the central symbols and recurring images of the book. The imagery in the title itself, for example, suggests the clarity and simplicity of a vision or dream that, for Rayona at least, is attainable only too briefly. Thus the yellow raft recalls not only Ray and Father Tom's sexual incident, which to Ray has the quality of a dream, but also Ellen DeMarco, who Ray first sees poised on the raft, representing "everything I'm not but ought to be." Another central image in the story is hair braiding, in which several separate strands are woven into one. Thus the story opens with Christine pulling Ray's hair into a braid and ends with the image of Ida braiding her own hair. In the same way, Dorris has woven the three separate angles of vision provided by Rayona, Christine, and Ida into one complex but unified tale. As Kakutani has noted, Dorris is also a master of the telling descriptive image: the broken taillight, "spilling a red at a funny angle," or the leaves on the trees, "heavy as tin" on a hot, breezeless day.

Allusion Throughout the story, Dorris' constant allusions to songs, television shows, and movies from the 1960s-1980s pop scene emphasizes the degree to which all three major Indian characters have been molded by mainstream American culture rather than traditional Indian customs and beliefs. Rayona describes her mother's face as "like a stumped contestant on 'Jeopardy' with time running out." Christine, who grew up in the Sixties, remembers watching Vietnam protests on TV, listening to "Teen Beat" on the radio, and fantasizing that Dayton was her grieving lover in "Teen Angel." She considers it fitting to leave her daughter a lifetime membership in Video Village, and the two films she takes out on her first visit are significant for how they show the extent to which Christine has assimilated white American culture. "Christine" (1983) is a Stephen King horror movie featuring a car with demonic powers. In "Little Big Man" (1970), one of whose actors Christine claims to have dated, the main character is not a birthright Indian but a 121-year old white man adopted by Indians. Even Aunt Ida, at fifty-seven the oldest major Indian character and therefore one whose life would ostensibly be most traditional, is singing along to a pop song on her Walkman when we first meet her. Ida turns out to be addicted to daytime soap operas on TV. In these examples, which are only some of many in the book, Dorris is suggesting that if there once was a conflict in the eyes of Indians between tribal heritage and mainstream culture or other cultures, it has long since been resolved in favor of mainstream culture. Only a naive European-American character like Father Tom can seriously speak of Rayona's "dual heritage."

Literary Qualities

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A skilled storyteller, Dorris effectively uses literary techniques associated with oral tradition in A Yellow Raft in Blue Water: strong narrative voice, vivid imagery, figurative language, repetition of key scenes.

Each section resounds with a clear, powerful narrative voice, as if readers are listening to a friend tell a story that reveals itself to the teller only during the process of threading it together. Rayona, Christine, and Ida use "I"—even an occasional "you"— to strengthen the impression that this is an intimate conversation, not an essay. Rayona tells her story in present tense, as if she is too caught up in everyday action to allow any time for reflection about what has occurred and what it means. She moves chronologically through a series of events, and there is little wondering about the future or the past.

Christine speaks in past tense, moving back and forth across time as she mentions a person or event that warrants a digression. Her voice is emotional, revealing to the reader the fear, anger, and tenderness that her actions demonstrate in more oblique ways. Ida, however, makes no attempt to tell the totality of her story. Her style of storytelling is to present her credentials bluntly and declare, "I tell my story the way I remember, the way I want," using "the words that gave me power." The urgency and confidence of the older woman's voice are clear in her revelations that this narrative is her legacy: "I have to tell this story every day, add to it, revise, invent the parts I forget or never knew . . . [Rayona] doesn't realize that I am the story, and that is my savings, to leave her or not." Ida limits herself to relating a few key incidents, leaving readers—after such a preface— to puzzle out their significance in other episodes of her life. Each of the three voices is distinct, compelling, and strong.

Another characteristic of the novel's artistry is its imagery. Rayona's description of her father exemplifies Dorris's talent in using vivid images to characterize and tell a story: "He's tall and heavy, with skin a shade browner than mine. He has let his Afro grow out and there's rainwater caught in his hair. His mailman uniform is damp too, the gray wool pants baggy around his knees. At his wrist, the bracelet of three metals, copper, iron, and brass, has a dull shine. I've never seen him without it." In this glimpse of a person in a doorway, Dorris gives not only the kind of detail that allows reader to visualize Elgin Taylor as a real person, but also the weather, his occupation, the racial difference between father and daughter, the mystery of the tri-color bracelet.

Descriptions of natural landscapes and architecture are similarly packed with images that advance and deepen rather than weigh down the plot. When Christine first sneaks up on her childhood home after several years, for example, Dorris emphasizes the passage of time in these sentences: "Shingles were blown off the roof in an irregular pattern that reminded me of notes on a music sheet, and tan cardboard replaced glass in a pane of the attic window. The house and land had been through so many seasons, shared so much rain and sun, so much expanding and shrinking with heat and cold, that the seams between them were all but gone." In another of many examples, Ida conveys her homesickness by describing the smells of the reservation that she once sought in the breezes blowing toward Denver: "I found the green scent of budding fields, the sharp catch of fresh dirt, the touch of air heated by the unshaded flow of sun." These images bring readers to Montana, allowing them to experience the world through the senses of the narrators.

Dorris also makes extensive use of figurative language. Almost every page includes metaphors and similes, as simple as Christine's saying, "Thoughts whirled in my head like newspapers on a windy street," and as moody and evocative as Ida's description of music that "poured into the dark house like water from a faucet." These figures of speech slow the pace of the story, encouraging readers to pause and consider a surprising comparison that poetically asks them to reflect on a person or experience.

Another storytelling technique that Dorris relies oh in A Yellow Raft in Blue Water is repetition. Several events are narrated by each of the women, but each person's version is slightly different. Readers know from the first paragraph, for example, that Christine has been hospitalized, but not until the middle section of the novel is the seriousness of her illness revealed. Bored as a fifteen-year-old might be while sitting in uncomfortable clothes for the duration of visiting hours, Rayona is annoyed that her mother wants to play cards and becomes irritated when she sees her mother cheat at solitaire. There seems to be no reasonable justification for the mother's behavior until Christine relates this same scene: just before Rayona arrives at the hospital, Christine has learned that her illness is terminal. She wants to play cards to hide her distress from her daughter, and the liveliness that seems to be a sure sign of faked illness to Rayona is clearly a mother's attempt at bravado when she feels that her world, as well as her body, are falling apart. Christine feels her mother does not understand nor empathize with her situation. But Ida's section reveals the opposite: she is allowing her daughter the dignity of feeling as if she is in control for as long as possible. As in stories that are told aloud, each time a scene is repeated in this novel, the narrative pattern is slightly, significantly altered. The result is not boredom for the reader or a sense of carelessness on the part of the writer, but a gradually increasing awareness that each of us sees only one part of the stories we inhabit.

The novel also relies on irony, realistic dialogue, non-linear plotting, and other techniques of modern fiction. One is left with a sense that this is a polished version of real stories that people tell themselves and one another—not always starting from the beginning, shaping dialogue to suit the intended effect of the tale, and ending when Jacket illustration by Ken Robbins for A Yellow Raft in Blue Water by Michael Dorris. the teller runs out of breath, memory, or insight.

Although there are many objects and actions in the novel that could be seen as symbolic—driving, horseback riding, a mysterious letter from the miracle at Fatima, a cheap, beaded medallion that Father Tom gives Rayona—several symbols are central. Hair becomes very important in this novel, representing much more than a fashion statement: the first scene mentions that Christine has just pulled Rayona's "long frizzy hair into a herringbone braid," and the final image is of Ida sitting in the dark on a roof, her arms busy in "the rhythm of three strands, the whispers of coming and going, of twisting and tying and blending, of catching and of letting go, of braiding." When Lee Taylor finally succumbs to Christine's pressure and enlists in the army, he cuts his hair short and brings his mother an envelope with his thick, black braid. Such images suggest not only the Native-American traditions of braiding and of the ceremonial dressing of hair, but of the way narratives can be pulled together, of the ways we try—despite so many instances of disappointment and chaos—to bring things under control.

Another central image that invites readers to consider its symbolic importance is the raft in the novel's title. Ken Robbins' jacket illustration shows a bright yellow raft on a waveless lake, misty and ringed with hills under a cloudy sky. This raft at Bearpaw Lake State Park is the site of some critical moments for Rayona. It is the place she swims to through cold water, the place where she first sees Ellen DeMarco, the place where Father Tom engages in an act of sexual imposition, if not actual rape. When she sees it later, her description reveals the raft's importance to her: "Somewhere in my mind I've decided that if I stare at it hard enough it will launch me out of my present troubles. If I squint a certain way, it appears to be a lighted trapdoor, flush against a black floor. With my eyes closed almost completely, it becomes a kind of bull's-eye, and I'm an arrow banging into it head-first." Unlike Huckleberry Finn's raft, a mode of transportation on a moving river, this raft is moored in a cold, still lake; it is odd, bright, just sitting there as an object of contemplation. It is an island, a psychic place of rescue, a temporary destination, a diving platform that changes in shifting light. It could even symbolize the action of perceiving events of one's life: we consider moments in space or blue water, trying to figure out why we landed in that particular place once and what it meant later. Christine gazes at different rafts, as does Ida, but each is significant to the person who has swum alone through icy water and stood on warm boards and looked around.

Social Sensitivity

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Dorris introduces a number of issues in A Yellow Raft in Blue Water that reveal his understanding of complex social situations. The non-Indian characters are often chafing against other cultures, cannot escape the labels and assumptions that are intimated or more directly forced on them. One source of Rayona's feeling adrift at Bearpaw Lake is her exposure to a social class that she has never observed closely: the college students who work a summer job that allows them to sunbathe and play pranks. Christine's life in Seattle may be seen as her attempt to conceal her Indian heritage and be accepted into such a world.

Racial borders are crossed by all three women in their intimate relationships, complicating the usual power balance. The role of Native Americans in national politics, the use of Indian language and preservation of culture in the face of mass media— these are other ways that Dorris introduces a complex view of a society still coming to terms with its own diversity.

Alcohol abuse is also treated in this novel. Lecon George, Ida's father, is alcoholic, and Dorris shows the effects of this illness on the man, his relationships, and even subsequent generations. Christine, too, is revealed to have had considerable problems with alcohol, probably contributing to the liver failure that will bring about her death. Foxy Cree, Rayona's cousin, loses his opportunity to compete in a rodeo because he is drunk—and the image is not of a carefree, lively social drinker. He seems to be wasting his teenage years, lost, already in the grips of something destructive.

Of particular interest to Dorris, perhaps because of his studies of alcohol use among Native Americans, are the negative social effects of drinking and the difficulty of changing patterns of thinking about alcohol. The Broken Cord emphasizes that a disturbing consequence of Fetal Alcohol Effect and Fetal Alcohol Syndrome is its diminishing the capacity to understand cause and effect: this failure of logic leads to patterns of alcohol abuse when drinkers cannot anticipate the results of their drinking. Such an attitude is part of the fabric of this novel, for Lecon George and the others never seem to understand or accept responsibility for the pain their drinking has caused others. Dorris's implicit commentary is clear, for the contrast between the truth and their excuses and lies (such as having everything under control) is quite evident to the other characters and to readers.

Several sexual situations are also important in A Yellow Raft in Blue Water. Rayona begrudgingly befriends Father Tom, a white priest who is new to the reservation. He attempts to seduce her and engages her in an awkward sexual encounter. Rayona runs from this situation, but perhaps lacks the maturity to confront it directly, even in her own mind. She does relate this event to Evelyn Dial, the cook who serves as a surrogate mother while she is working at the state park. Evelyn listens carefully, believes Rayona, and takes action by driving Rayona to find her mother and by letting Father Tom know that she knows what happened. Evelyn tells Rayona that she is doing this "because somebody should have done it for me," suggesting that women should notice, should help each other in facing and healing from sexual abuse. Evelyn assumes the protective, angry role that one would hope a woman would use to defend someone in such a vulnerable position. Although no charges are lodged against Father Tom, he is shamed by knowing that others see him as he is. Due to Evelyn's intervention, he will be leaving Rayona alone.

Christine's section reflects on her many sexual experiences with men primarily by suggesting that these were ways for her to seek independence and a sense of her own power. Her narrative, intended to present her as fun-seeking adventurer, betrays a rather mechanical and unsatisfying promiscuity. Her relationship with Elgin Taylor, however, is characterized by strong sexual attraction and complete trust. Christine shows the intensity of such love, describing more how her heart than her body felt in their moments of intimacy: "There were no seams, no limits, no beginnings and endings, just the strong rush of an unchoked river sweeping everything in its way." Her willingness to tolerate his infidelities and frequent absence is in part explained by the insights she provides about their relationship in these scenes.

Ida reveals a secret that brings several other social issues into this novel. Inappropriate sexual contact within a family leads to unwanted pregnancy. Christine is not Ida's daughter, as everyone assumes, but her half-sister and cousin, a child resulting from her father's seduction or rape of his sister-in-law, Clara. Ida overhears the debate among her bed-ridden mother, father, and aunt about what to do, raising the issue of how a family responds to such ugly problems. There is no question of exposing the father, only of saving face—even if that means having Clara deliver a child she does not want and someone else devote herself to child-rearing. Family stability is sustained when Ida agrees to go off to a convent with Clara and bring back the child to raise as her own. For the rest of her life, Ida is marked in the narrow world of the reservation as a fallen woman, even though she is a teenage virgin.

This event also shows the way unwanted pregnancy might have been handled in earlier generations: the unwed mother goes into hiding until her child is born, and the child is not told of her parentage. Adoption— an issue that surely resonated with Michael Dorris—makes one a true parent, the novel suggests, and Clara's later claims on Christine are revealed as shallow attempts to profit by taking a child from the woman who has acted clearly as her mother.

Throughout the novel, Dorris avoids sensationalism on these social issues by grounding them in human stories that readers come to care about. He avoids melodrama and preaching, attending to the broader social contexts in which such situations occur.

Media Adaptations

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A Yellow Raft in Blue Water was recorded on an audiocassette by Colleen Dewhurst for Harper Audio in 1990.

For Further Reference

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Belden, Elizabeth A. and Judith M. Beckman. Review of A Yellow Raft in Blue Water. English Journal (April 1988): 81.

Bonetti, Kay. "An Interview with Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris." The Missouri Review Vol. 11, No. 2 (1988): 79-99.

Broyard, Anatole. Review of A Yellow Raft in Blue Water. The New York Times Book Review (June 7, 1987): 7.

Chavkin, Allan and Nancy Feyl Chavkin, eds. Conversations with Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994. This is a valuable collection of interviews with the authors.

Dorris, Michael. "Beyond Cliche, Beyond Politics: Multiculturalism and the Fact of America." The Georgia Review (fall 1992): 407-17. In this essay, Dorris reflects on the anniversary of Columbus' arrival in America as an opportunity to recognize multiculturalism.

Dorris, Michael. "The Book Lives!" Booklist 93.6 (November 15, 1996): 590-92. In this adaptation of a speech he gave at the Children's Book Council meeting in June 1996, Dorris praises books and reading as important experiences for young people.

Dorris, Michael. "The Gift Abel Gave Us." Parents' Magazine (November 1992): 216-18. Dorris tells of his son's life and his family's struggle to accept his death.

Dorris, Michael. "Rite of Passage: A Man's Journey into Fatherhood Echoes His Son's Entry into Adolescence." Parents' Magazine (June 1989): 246—48. In this essay, Dorris tells of his own hunger for a father and his examination of himself as a father to his son.

Dorris, Michael. "Waiting to Listen." Horn Book (November-December 1995): 698-703. Here Dorris outlines some of his assumptions about the writer's role in shaping character and plot and his own process of writing for children and young adults.

Jones, Malcolm, Jr., and Brad Stone. "The Death of a Native Son." Newsweek (April 28, 1997): 82-84. This article summarizes some of the events leading to Dorris's suicide.

Lesser, Wendy. "Braided Lives under the Big Sky." The Washington Post Book World (May 31, 1987): 5. This is a review of A Yellow Raft in Blue Water.

"Michael A(nthony) Dorris, 1945-1997." In Children's Literature Review, vol. 58. Ed. Deborah J. Morad. Detroit: Gale, 2000, pp. 68-88. This comprehensive entry includes biography, critical commentary, and reviews.

"Michael Dorris, 1945-1997." In Contemporary Literary Criticism, vol. 109. Eds. Jeffrey W. Hunter, Deborah A. Stanley, and Timothy J. White. Detroit: Gale, 1997, pp. 295-314. This long entry in the "In Memoriam" section of the 1997 Yearbook is a comprehensive view of the writer and his work. It includes obituaries, overviews of Dorris's writing, and excerpts from reviews.

Narveson, Robert D. A review of A Yellow Raft in Blue Water. Prairie Schooner (fall 1989): 126-28.

Outlaw, Keddy. A review of A Yellow Raft in Blue Water. School Library Journal (November 1987): 121.

Owens, Louis. "Erdrich and Dorris's Mixedbloods and Multiple Narratives." In Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992, pp. 192-224. This chapter on Native-American identity in Erdrich's and Dorris's fiction includes an analysis of A Yellow Raft in Blue Water.

Rayson, Ann. "Shifting Identity in the Work of Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris." Studies in American Indian Literatures (winter 1991): 27-36. This essay analyzes the writers' treatment of Native American and mixed-blood identity.

Riley, Patricia, ed. Growing Up Native American: An Anthology. New York: Morrow, 1993. This is a collection of short pieces and excerpts from Native American writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Rosenberg, Ruth. A Teacher's Guide to "A Yellow Raft in Blue Water." Jacksonville, 111.: PermaBound, 1994.

Sale, Roger. A review of A Yellow Raft in Blue Water. The Massachusetts Review (spring 1988): 75-77.

Weil, Ann. Michael Dorris. New York: Raintree/Steck Vaughn, 1997. This biography, written for intermediate and young adult readers, was published before Dorris's death. It includes photographs, a bibliography, and a glossary.

Wong, Hertha D. "An Interview with Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris." North Dakota Quarterly (winter 1987): 196-218. This interview focuses on A Yellow Raft in Blue Water, the writers' collaboration, and the ways some of the novel is based on personal experiences.

—. "Michael Dorris." Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 175: Native American Writers of the United States. Ed. Kenneth M. Roemer. Detroit: Gale, 1997, pp. 65-74. This entry published before Dorris's death includes overviews and critical commentary on his writing, as well as two pages of marked typescript from Cloud Chamber.

A Yellow Raft in Blue Water. Audio-cassette. Recorded by Colleen Dewhurst. New York: Harper Audio, 1990.

"A Yellow Raft in Blue Water: Michael Dorris, 1987." In Novels for Students, vol. 3. Eds. Diane Telgen and Kevin Hile. Detroit: Gale, 1998, pp. 344-64. This detailed overview includes a brief biography, plot summary, character sketches, analyses of themes and style, and suggestions for teaching and study.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Michael Dorris, A Yellow Raft in Blue Water, in The New Native American Novel, Mary Bartlett, ed., University of New Mexico Press, 1986, pp. 93-107. Cited in Hadella (1994) and Owens (1992).

Michael Dorris, "Native American Literature in an Ethno-historical Context," in College English, Vol. 41, October, 1979, pp. 147-62. Cited in Owens (1987).

Paul Hadella, "Michael Anthony Dorris," in Reference Guide to American Literature, St. James Press, 1994, pp. 263-65.

Michiko Kakutam, "Multiple Perspectives," New York Times, May 9, 1987, p. 17.

Penelope Moffet, review of A Yellow Raft in Blue Water, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 21, 1987, p. 2.

Adalaide Morris, "First Persons Plural in Contemporary Feminist Fiction," Tuba Studies in Women's Literature, Vol. 11, No. 1, Spring, 1992, pp. 11-30.

Robert D. Narveson, review of A Yellow Raft in Blue Water, Prairie Schooner, Vol. 63, No. 3, Fall, 1989, pp. 126-28.

Louis Owens, "Acts of Recovery: The American Indian Novel in the '80s," Western American Literature, Vol. 23, No. 1, Spring, 1987, pp. 55-7.

Louis Owens, "Erdrich and Dorris'-s Mixed-bloods and Multiple Narratives," in Other Destinies:Understanding the American Indian Novel, University of Oklahoma Press, 1992, pp. 218-24.

Adrienne Rich, "Notes toward a Politics of Location," in Blood, Bread, and Poetry- Selected Prose 1979-1985, Norton, 1986, p. 25. Cited in Morris.

Roger Sale, "American Novels, 1987," a review of nine novels, including A Yellow Raft in Blue Water, in The Massachusetts Review, Vol. 29, No. 1, Spring, 1988, pp. 71-86.

For Further Study Hans Bak, "The Kaleidoscope of History: Michael Dorris and Louise Erdrich's The Crown of Columbus (with a coda on Gerald Vizenor's The Heirs of Columbus)," in Deferring a Dream: Literary Sub-versions of the American Columbiad, edited by Gert Buelens and Ernst Rudin, Birkhauser Verlag, 1994, pp. 99-119. An analysis of how Dorris' novels rewrite history by including the previously marginalized perspectives of Native Americans.

Anatole Broyard, "Eccentricity Was All They Could Afford," review in The New York Times Book Review, June 7, 1987, p.7. This review argues that Dorris' excellent writing and complex plot give significance to the otherwise uneventful lives of his characters.

Allan Chavkin and Nancy Feyl Chavkin, editors, Conversations with Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris, University Press of Mississippi, 1994, These interviews with Michael Dorris and/or Louise Erdrich, his wife, help explain how Dorris sees his own fiction.

David Cowart, "'The Rhythm of Three Strands: Cultural Braiding in Dorris's A Yellow Raft in Blue Water," in Studies in American Indian Literatures: The Journal of the Association for the Study of American Indian Literatures, Vol. 8, No. 1, Spring, 1996, pp. 1-12. An analysis of how Dorris's three narrators weave diverse experiences and perspectives into a complex plot.

Louise Erdrich, Conversations with Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris, University Press of Mississippi, 1994. A more detailed examination of the nature of the unusually close collaboration between these two Native American writers who were also husband and wife.

Louis Owens, "Acts of Recovery: The American Indian Novel in the '80s," in Western American Literature, Vol. 22, No. 1, Spring, 1987, pp. 53-57. This review argues that Dorris's novel contributes to a recent renaissance of excellent, sophisticated Native American fiction.

Ann Rayson, "Shifting Identity in the Work of Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris," in Studies in American Indian Literatures: The Journal of the Association for the Study of American Indian Literatures, Vol. 3, No. 4, Winter, 1991, pp. 27-36. An analysis of how Dorris's collaboration with his wife, Louise Erdrich, enables him to write about situations from diverse racial and gender perspectives.

Barbara K. Robins, "Michael (Anthony) Dorris," Dictionary of Native American Literature,, Garland, 1994, pp. 417-22. A brief summary of Michael Dorris's life and a general introduction to the themes developed in both his literary and non-literary writings.

Hertha D. Wong, "An Interview with Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris," in North Dakota Quarterly, Vol. 55, No. 1, Winter, 1987, pp. 196-218. An interview with Michael Dorris and Louise Erdrich, his wife, which describes their collaboration in writing A Yellow Raft in Blue Water and explains how some of the matenal for the novel derives from their personal experiences.


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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, 1996): 1-12. Explores the symbolism of the braid in Dorris’s novel as portrayed in the joining together of the lives of Ida, Christine, and Rayona through the common cultural bond they share.

Kakutani, Michiko. “Multiple Perspectives.” The New York Times, May 9, 1987, p. B13. Kakutani notes the similarity in narrative method between this novel and The Beet Queen and comments that a strength of Dorris’s novel is its depiction of elusive states of mind through tiny details. Kakutani’s observation that the men in the novel are either sex objects or cads seems surprisingly off the mark.

Lesser, Wendy. “Braided Lives Under Big Sky.” The Washington Post Book Week, May 31, 1987, 5. Dorris’s style is seen as a matter of pressing down on the prosaic until it yields its own poetry in a sharp observation of reality. The mundane, through cumulative effect, becomes the marvelous. Dorris, Lesser comments, also creates a number of good minor characters.

MacCurtain, Austin. “In Free Fall.” The Times Literary Supplement, March 11, 1988, 276. MacCurtain observes that the device of multiple narrators gives density and richness of texture to the story. Its themes emerge without an omniscient authorial voice. Yet the high literary polish of the narratives may distort the terms in which such people see themselves and tell their stories.

Morris, Adalaide. “First Persons Plural in Contemporary Feminist Fiction.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 11 (Spring, 1992): 11-29. Focusing on Dorris’s A Yellow Raft in Blue Water, as well as Joan Chase’s During the Reign of the Queen of Persia (1983) and Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s Disturbances in the Field (1983), Morris explores the attempts of the authors to combine two philosophies in order to create a feminist political alliance that crosses generations, race, class, age, and sexual preference.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide