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 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...
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