Establishing distinct, realistic characters is at the center of Michael Dorris’s approach to writing fiction, and the themes of this novel are revealed in the first-person narratives. “Character is the base of all story, as far as I’m concerned,” he wrote in a 1996 Booklist column: “An idiosyncratic character plus a demanding situation equals literature, and strangely enough, the more particular the circumstances, the more universal the recognition.” A Yellow Raft in Blue Water reveals Dorris’s ability to render several generations of women’s stories in complex, believable ways. Character is revealed in the details that each narrator chooses, in her reflections on herself and the world around her, in the striking ways each remembers the same scenes in slightly different ways.
In a 1995 essay for The Horn Book Magazine, Dorris explained that writing a story is a matter of listening to and becoming one with the voice of an invented narrator: If a writer has sufficiently laid the groundwork, characters inevitably surprise, shock, entertain, disappoint, or make proud. An author, like a listener or a reader, is, after all, just another kind of interactive audience, witness to the unpredictable and fascinating drama of human beings set in motion.
What makes this novel especially compelling is the way the writer layers each story on the others, allowing them to overlap and to reveal the strengths and limitations of each narrator’s view.
Dorris begins this drama with Rayona, who at age fifteen is wrestling with many issues that young adults face. She is concerned about her mother, who this time may be genuinely ill, but who has not revealed the precise nature of the illness to her daughter. Rayona tests the limits of her power with her mother, sometimes obeying and sometimes challenging her, sometimes understanding and sometimes feeling mystified by her mother’s behavior. Her father, a postal worker with a propensity for moving in and out of their lives, is someone that Rayona both idolizes and does not really know. Rayona struggles to fit in wherever she goes-at school, in the church youth group on the reservation, among the college boys she works with at the state park, in the extended family whose ties to one another and to her are more blurred and complicated than she realizes.
Many of Rayona’s questions are related to identity, and the novel explores the intricate ways people figure out who they are. Her racial identity is a source of wonder for Rayona, who has always lived in a world where one language is spoken at home, another in the world. She has never known her father’s African-American family, but her skin is dark, and people on the reservation-taunting her about her “Coppertone tan”-consider her more black than Indian. Her eccentric grandmother, who speaks only Indian and seems foreign, is a mystery to Rayona-someone who, when she once called her “Grandma,” sharply corrected her with a reminder to say “Aunt Ida.”
Her identity as a young woman is also a source of concern for Rayona. Lonely and adrift without adult guidance, Rayona is drawn in and then confused by the attention given to her by Father Tom, a priest as new to the reservation as she is. Rayona is large, able to do men’s work at the state park. She is able to fool rodeo judges into thinking she is a boy; when she competes, her determination makes up for her lack of skill in earning her a special award. Rayona admires Ellen DeMarco, a blonde lifeguard whose body, voice, and mannerisms captivate Rayona’s male co-workers, and Evelyn Dial, a gruff cook who refuses to take nonsense from anyone. Yet Rayona knows that she is not like these women, not like her mother, not like her grandmother. She spends considerable time studying her appearance and comparing herself to her relatives, and she carries a scrap of a letter she found at the state park, imagining that the loving parents who wrote it are her own parents vacationing in Switzerland.
Many of Rayona’s concerns are paralleled in the section Christine narrates. As a teenager, Christine also struggled with her identity as a young woman and with her relationship to her mother. However, she tried to find her way in the world by engaging in adventurous, even risky, behavior and learning how to attract men’s attention. When she feels mistreated by her mother and others on the reservation, Christine set out on her own and found what felt like strength in independence, living a little recklessly in a big city.
Because Christine’s narrative is told from the perspective of a woman in her 40s, however, this section of the novel wrestles with themes that Rayona has yet to understand. Many of these are focused on relationships, as Christine confronts her own terminal illness and the circumstances that have shaped her life.
As she recalls incidents from her childhood, Christine reflects on her relationship with her charismatic brother, Lee, who seemed to be her mother’s favorite and whose memory-he was killed in Vietnam-still plagues her with a sense of loss and guilt. In describing her relationship with her husband, Elgin, Christine reveals her sexual attraction to this man, a passion so deep that she cannot consider divorce despite his blatant infidelity and frequent disappearances for months at a time. She considers her relationship with her mother, portrayed even in Christine’s midlife as a power struggle characterized by anger and poor communication. She recalls many of the scenes Rayona describes, adding a mother’s perspective, and tells the reader details that she keeps from her daughter in an attempt to protect her. The view of parenting and negligence that Rayona sketches is immediately challenged by Christine’s layer of the story.
Another theme that emerges strongly in the middle section of this novel is the need to reconcile oneself with the past. Christine confesses to having less than admirable roles in many scenes: drunken nights, a failed attempt to seduce her brother’s best friend, haphazard attempts to assert herself that come out hostile and self-absorbed. Facing her own mortality, however, Christine gradually forgives herself and everyone else. She learns to hear love and concern in her mother’s offer, “You call for me…if you want to,” and Dorris gives the impression that Christine will call for Ida as she grows too frail to care for herself, that she recognizes her mother’s unconventional attempts to show affection. Christine teaches Rayona to drive, gives her a silver turtle ring from her own finger, and allows her daughter the adult pleasure of paying for lunch out of her own earnings. These small reconciliations, the novel suggests, may be all we can hope for, all we need in the end.
The third section, narrated by Ida, echoes the previous sections in that it tells of one woman’s struggle to define herself in her teens and early adulthood. It is much briefer than the other sections, however, suggesting not only Ida’s discomfort with self-expression, but the older woman’s understanding that sometimes the less said, the better. One cannot read this section without appreciating the wisdom of age, the way the years provide lenses for seeing the self and the world. Ida describes her life as a “ring of mountains, close together and separated by deep chasms.” She is well aware of the steep roads, the “log bridges of…memory” she needs to connect her experiences. At several points in the novel, respect for one’s elders becomes critical, but Ida’s narrative is itself a careful revelation of this theme: older people know more than they let on, she suggests, and their lives are stories-big as mountain ranges-that they constantly revise and bequeath to others.
Much of Ida’s narrative focuses on the idea of choice: how her early life was shaped by the choices others made for her, how she later learned to choose and wished she had said “no” more often, how she continues to wrestle with accepting Christine’s choices. Although Christine does not know the details of her mother’s early life, Ida tells the story of her sacrificing reputation and independence to save face for her family. As children, both Christine and Lee were bewildered by their mother’s refusal to provide details about their paternity, a source of irritation to Christine even in adulthood. Ida’s story clarifies the reason for this choice, showing the older woman not as distant or cruel, insensitive to her children, but as a caring mother who chose to protect them from truths too painful for them to know. Others may not know what to call her, but Ida knows who she is and how she is connected to the people she loves.
Like her daughter and granddaughter, Ida was forced at several points in her life to consider the importance of physical beauty and the power it brings people, particularly women. At an especially painful moment in her life, when she thinks Christine will be taken from her, Ida holds a scalding ladle to her own cheek, leaving an ugly scar. She is large and abrupt, almost manly in her ability to do physical work, to do difficult things. But she refuses to accept a compromised view of herself as a woman of strength and beauty: when Willard Pretty Dog, who she has nursed to health after the war, announces that he will stay with her out of loyalty even though she is not beautiful, she rejects him. Ida is careful to nurture a strong sense of self in Christine, who was not especially beautiful as a child, and to temper the admiration that others have for Lee, who was always physically attractive.
Several other themes are woven into the novel: the pull and burden of family ties, the value of friendship, the differences between men and women, intergenerational communication and understanding, the need for personal and social responsibility, the erosion of Native American culture, the difficulty of finding the right language, the persistent connections to place. Each narrator approaches such topics from her own perspective, giving the cumulative effect of added depth with each new telling.
The novel itself becomes a story about storytelling, an illustration about the beauty and limits of language in conveying human experience and emotion, a lesson about the need to listen carefully and to piece together what might be the truth from the scraps each person provides.