Since his death in 1997, Michael Dorris’s life has been the subject of many articles, conjectures, and controversies. What one discovers in reading the range of biographical sketches is a man whose public image-as successful anthropologist, educator, writer, activist, husband, father-was sustained despite severe depression that lasted for years. Writer Louise Erdrich, whom he married in 1981, told The New York Times after his death that Dorris had “descended inch by inch, fighting all the way.”
A Yellow Raft in Blue Water, published as adult fiction but appropriate for and accessible to young adults, is divided into three sections, each titled with the name of its narrator. Rayona Taylor-a fifteen-year-old girl who is half Native American, half African American-tells of being abandoned by her mother, running away from her grandmother’s home, and working for a summer at a state park. Christine George Taylor, Rayona’s mother, reflects on her experiences growing up on an Indian reservation in Montana, escaping to Seattle, and returning in her 40s to confront her mother and her past. Ida George, Christine’s 57-year-old mother, completes the story by unraveling her own perspectives on herself, her family, and the choices people face and eventually accept. This novel was cited as a Best Book by the American Library Association in 1988.
One of Michael Dorris’s strengths is to create settings that pull readers into the story, constructing detailed landscapes that serve a much greater purpose than serving simply as poetic backdrops. They provide snapshots of landscapes in the American Northwest, especially Montana and Washington, and of a range of homes and public spaces.
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.
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.
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.
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?
1. Using the Internet and print sources, find out as much about Montana as possible: pictures, maps, geography, cultural and historical sites. How has the state-particularly its Indian reservations-changed over the last century? How does the “Big Sky” state define itself for tourists? What other impressions of the state can be gleaned from less commercial sources? How does this information about Montana complement your reading of A Yellow Raft in Blue Water?
Other works by Michael Dorris are natural extensions of a reading of A Yellow Raft in Blue Water. Dorris found Rayona so compelling that he continued her story in two other works: Cloud Chamber (1997), an adult novel that focuses on their ancestors in the 19th and early 20th centuries; and The Window (1997), a posthumously published novel for young adults which features Rayona at age eleven, staying with her father’s family in Kentucky while her mother tries to break a cycle of “bad nights.”