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, and 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 the 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 the 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 the reader to visualize Elgin Taylor as a real person, but also the weather, his occupation, the racial difference between father and daughter, and 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 on 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 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.