Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 453

A Yellow Raft in Blue Water might be read as a meditation on family, on the mysteries of self and community, on the search for identity as individual and as member of the larger group, and on the pursuit of independence in the light of the reality of interdependence.

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The main characters of the novel, Rayona, Christine, and Ida, while deeply involved with one another, remain in important ways isolated. They touch one another at a multitude of levels, but they communicate with one another only indirectly and, it sometimes seems, haphazardly. Family relationships have been distorted by the family secret that Ida carries, but family remains at the heart of the story.

The characters derive some of their identity from their complex relationship to the Native American community, but after Lee’s death, the interaction of Ida and of Christine, who has moved off the reservation, with the community at large becomes limited. Moreover, Christine has married a black man, and Rayona, of mixed racial heritage, fantasizes an identity on the basis of a letter sent to someone else, a daughter of the white middle class.

As Catholics, the three women are also members of a faith community. Dorris hardly offers an idealized portrait of the church (the priests, for example, are depicted as vessels of clay), and the book implies no necessary affirmation on the author’s part of religion in general or of Catholicism in particular. Yet two of the novel’s three parts close with Christine’s spiritual crisis, her loss of faith, suggesting that the character’s Catholic identity, however complicated and ambiguous, is not to be taken lightly.

What complicates the characters’ relation to the community as much as anything is the pursuit of independence. Both Christine and Rayona set out on their own; each is motivated, at least in part, by a desire to reject the mother who has, it seems, rejected her. Yet each character will learn the truth of interdependence, and if this is a novel of setting out, it is even more strongly a novel of return. Rayona returns to Christine. Christine returns to the reservation, to the church, to Ida. Dayton Nickles is a pivotal figure. He is instrumental in Rayona’s return, and he gives Christine the shelter and support she needs; yet the women also bring the gift of warmth and caring to a lonely man. It is perhaps as a gesture toward the theme of interdependence, with its suggestions of interaction and interweaving, that Dorris ends the novel with the image of two friends, Ida and Father Hurlburt, the Catholic priest who is also part Indian, sharing a concern for Christine, while Ida braids her hair, twisting, tying, blending.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1120

In 1979, Michael Dorris wrote that "there is no such thing as 'Native American literature,' though it may yet, someday, come into being." Among the requirements for such a literature, Dorris continued, was a "shared consciousness, an inherently identifiable world-view." Expanding on this theme of identity in a 1992 essay, Owens notes that in A Yellow Raft in Blue Water , for the most part, "the individual who would 'be' Indian rather than 'play' Indian is faced with an overwhelming challenge." Only Aunt Ida "becomes...the bearer of the identity and order that are so fragile they may perish in a single generation if unarticulated." Although Ida, too, is unavoidably influenced by the bombardment of mainstream culture, Owens notes that "she can take off her earphones and wig, turn off the television soap operas, and become a story-teller, leaving her 'savings'—a recovered sense of self, identity, authenticity—to Rayona." The other characters in the story, on the other hand, are too enmeshed in sometimes...

(The entire section contains 1573 words.)

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