Social Sensitivity

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.

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