Topics for Discussion

1. What conflicts and bonds between mothers and daughters are evident from the first scene of this novel? How are these conflicts developed? In what ways do these seem to be typical mother-daughter relationships? What is unusual?

2. Discuss the role of Father Tom in the novel. What actually happens between him and Rayona? Why are the details of this event related in such an ambiguous way? What impressions of him does Rayona give through her descriptions? How does their relationship compare with that of Father Hurlburt and Ida?

3. How is Rayona affected by the relationship between her parents? How is your view of that relationship changed by Christine’s section of the novel?

4. What is Dayton Nickles’ purpose in the novel? What details of his life does Dorris keep mysterious? With what effect? How does his relationship with Christine change over time?

5. What are the secrets that Ida carries? Why is she secretive, even with Christine? Do you agree with her choice?

6. Consider this comment Michael Dorris once offered when told that a group of boys were going to learn about Native American culture by living in the woods for a week: when they asked him what they should bring to have an authentic experience, Dorris replied, “Their mothers.” Dorris’s works emphasize the matrilineal tradition among Native Americans. The narrators are strong women, as are the minor characters such as Pauline Cree, Evelyn Dial, Ellen DeMarco, and Clara. What gives them their strength? How are they different from the men in the novel? Who seems to have power? Who seems to have more moral fiber?

7. What views of life on an Indian reservation are suggested in this novel? How do lifestyles and attitudes change over the three generations portrayed there?

8. What is the significance of the letter that the Blessed Virgin gave to Lucy at Fatima? Why would this event be mentioned in all three of the narratives? How is faith portrayed, and what causes the characters to lose their faith?

9. The novel opens and closes with images of braiding. In what ways might this act be symbolic? Where else in the novel does hair seem to be important?

10. How is the Montana setting of most of this novel significant? Find passages in which the geographical landscape somehow reflects or connects with the emotional landscapes of the characters. What would be different if the entire work were set, for example, in Seattle or New York?

11. Many of the characters in this work indirectly seek forgiveness for their weaknesses and cruelties to others. Which of the characters seem to be at peace by the end of the novel? How do they reach any kind of resolution about their sins?

12. In what ways does this novel seem to comment on class and racial differences? In what socio-economic groups do the characters aspire to be accepted? What are the costs of these aspirations?

13. How does this novel present romantic love and conventional marriage? What seems to be needed for a happy relationship?

14. Dorris deliberately chooses a repetitive structure for this novel instead of having a single character narrate the entire work. He could have begun with Ida’s story, since it is closer to the beginning of the events. What is gained in having the story told three times and in this particular order? What do you notice when you reread Rayona’s or Christine’s section after you have completed the entire novel?

15. Why does Dorris end the work where he does? What do you suppose happens to Rayona, Christine, and Ida? Why leave Ida up on the roof, braiding her hair in front of someone who does not understand some essential features of her culture?

16. Why might Dorris have selected this title for the work?