A Yellow Raft in Blue Water

views updated

A Yellow Raft in Blue Water

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
For Further Study

Michael Dorris


Published in 1987, A Yellow Raft in Blue Water was Michael Dorris's first novel. Though the author went on to write six other works of fiction (including three young adult novels and a book of short stories) his first novel is generally considered his finest. A Yellow Raft in Blue Water is especially admired for his layered technique of telling the same story from multiple points of view. According to critic Louis Owens, Dorris borrowed that method from his wife, Louise Erdrich, a fellow writer and Native American who uses it in both Love Medicine and The Beet Queen. Dorris's novel, however, says Owens, "generates an impact sharper and stronger than either of [Erdrich's]." Although reviewers like Michiko Kakutani criticized Dorris for withholding key information from the plot in order to create a "false suspense," the critics' consensus is that what keeps readers involved is the vividly drawn characters rather than any formulaic mystery novel devices. A particular strength in the book is Dorris's portrayal of Indians who are neither stereotyped traditionalists nor mouthpieces for Red Power, but rather human beings in many ways like everyone else, trying to find their places in the world. As such they exemplify not just the clash between different cultures, but some of the great themes of fiction, whether it be the search for identity, the struggle within the self between strengths and weaknesses of character, or the clash of different cultures.

Author Biography

Michael Dorris was born on January 30, 1945, in either Louisville, Kentucky, or Dayton, Washington, the son of Jim and Mary Besy (Burkhardt) Dorris. Part Modoc on his father's side, he grew up on reservations in Montana and Kentucky. He graduated from Georgetown University with a B.A. cum laude in 1967. At Georgetown he studied theater, English, and the classics, and also developed a strong interest in cultural anthropology. Dorris received a M.Ph. from Yale University in 1970. Dorris began his academic career as an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Redlands in California. Dorris then spent a year at Franconia College in New Hampshire before settling at Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH. He began there as an instructor in 1972 and rose to become chair of the Native American studies department (1979-1985); chair of the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program (1982-1985); and professor of anthropology (1979-1988).

During this period, Dorris also received numerous fellowships, including a Danforth (1967); Woodrow Wilson (1967, 1980); National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) (1970); Guggenheim (1978); and Rockefeller (1985-86). He also won an Indian Achievement Award and the Choice Magazine Award for Outstanding Academic Book of 1984-85 for A Guide to Research on North American Indians. A Yellow Raft in Blue Water won a best book citation from the American Library Association in 1988.

Dorris married writer Louis Erdrich in 1981, and they had six children, one of whom, his adopted son (called Adam in the book), was the subject of Dorris's nonfiction book The Broken Cord: A Family's Ongoing Struggle with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. The book received the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1989 and was also made into an award-winning television film.

In practicality, through all of these efforts Dorris and Erdrich worked as a remarkably close editorial team. Under their system, whoever wrote the first draft received authorial credit, with the other spouse acting as editor. The dedication of A Yellow Raft in Blue Water is "For Louise: Companion through every page, Through every day, Compeer." Erdrich wrote the foreword to The Broken Cord and the two are listed as co-authors on two later books, The Crown of Columbus, (for which they received a $1.5 million advance, though the book did not live up to its advance publicity) and Route Two and Back, both published in 1991.

Beginning from his days as a single parent, Dorris's concern for children was evident in his life, his writing, and his charitable activities. In addition to being the adoptive father of many children, he wrote two young adult novels, Morning Girl (1992), which won the American Library Association Scott O'Dell Award and was named to five best books lists, and Guests (1995). Dorris also served as an advisory board member of Save the Children Foundation and on the U.S. Advisory Committee on Infant Mortality.

Despite these admirable achievements, Dorris's life was fraught with hardship. In 1991, his adopted son Reynold Abel died after being hit by a car. In 1995, another adopted son, Jeffrey, was tried for attempting to extort $15,000 from him. Adding to these strains, in 1997 he separated from his wife and was under investigation for child sexual abuse. Dorris committed suicide on April 11, 1997 in Concord, New Hampshire, by suffocating himself with a plastic bag in a motel room.

Plot Summary

Michael Dorris's A Yellow Raft in Blue Water describes the lives of three Native American women. Dorris complicates the novel, however, by having each woman narrate one section of the story from her own perspective with each woman's story adding new layers of meaning to their collective intergenerational saga. In addition, Dorris further complicates the plot by presenting the three stories in reverse order with Rayona, the "granddaughter," telling her story first, followed by her mother, Christine, and then her "grandmother," Aunt Ida. Consequently, Dorris's novel reads like a complex mystery, and the reader must carefully piece together its plot by continually uncovering new information and reassessing previous information as the story unfolds backwards in time.

Rayona's Story

Rayona begins her account by describing a typical fight between her Native American mother, Christine, and her African American father, Elgin, who is making one of his infrequent visits to see Christine while she is sick in the hospital. This fight, however, causes Christine to explode with anger because Elgin wants to divorce her and remarry a younger African American woman. Raging, Christine escapes from the hospital in a candystriper's uniform and threatens to commit suicide by crashing her car to collect the insurance money. Fortunately, this attempted suicide is frustrated when her car runs out of gas, and Christine is forced to adopt a more rational plan: to leave Seattle, return to a reservation in Montana, and live with her "mother" Ida, who insists that she be called "Aunt Ida" instead of mother because Christine was born out of wedlock. In one of the novel's funniest sections, Rayona describes how the only attachment keeping Christine in Seattle is her lifetime membership at Village Video, which Christine bought because it was on sale even though she did not have a VCR. Christine reluctantly leaves the lifetime membership behind in Seattle but not without renting a couple of videos "for life" on the way out of town.

Christine and Rayona arrive at Aunt Ida's only to be greeted with another fight, which also ends in harsh words and Christine running away. Unable to catch her fleeing mom, Rayona ends up stranded with Ida who is a virtual stranger. For awhile, a young priest named Father Tom befriends Rayona and arranges for her to attend school and religious meetings with other youth on the reservation, but the priest ends up making sexual advances at Rayona en route to a religious revival. After they cool off, Rayona tells Father Tom that she does not want to return to the reservation, and he encourages her and gives her money for a return ticket to Seattle. However, Rayona skips the train, pockets the cash, and stays in the area. She eventually meets Sky and Evelyn, who help her find a job at a state park and rent her a room in their trailer.

After a couple weeks, Evelyn and Sky help Rayona attempt to find her mother at a rodeo in a nearby town. The first person Rayona meets at the rodeo, however, is Foxy Cree, a boy who had ridiculed her back at the reservation school. After admitting that he is too drunk to perform his scheduled ride in the rodeo, Foxy asks Rayona to take his place, and Rayona agrees. Even though she rides poorly, she demonstrates enough determination that the judges award her a special consolation prize. When she goes to accept her award, however, everyone discovers that she is a woman, and she is quickly surrounded by all of her acquaintances: Evelyn, Sky, Foxy, Father Tom, and Dayton, the man who is now living with her mother. Dayton agrees to take Rayona back to his place to see her mother.

Christine's Story

After Rayona and Christine are reunited, Christine begins her story with an account of the night when she loses her faith in God because the mission nuns try to scare her into good behavior by convincing her that the world is going to end on New Year's Eve. Her devout faith is shattered, however, when the anticipated doomsday never arrives, and the nuns' only explanation is that a mystery prevented it. This memory leads Christine to other events from her childhood: the dangerous stunts that she performs to impress her brother Lee and his friends, and the rivalry that develops when Lee forms a new friendship with Dayton. Gradually, Dayton and Ida convince Lee to embrace his Native American identity while Christine assimilates mainstream America's values and fashions. When the Vietnam War breaks out, these differences cause Christine to support the war and Lee to oppose it, but Christine ultimately gets her way by convincing Dayton that Lee must enlist if he hopes to be respected as a tribal leader. Reluctantly, Lee enlists only to be killed in Vietnam, and meanwhile Christine uses an Indian relocation program to move to Seattle.

When news of Lee's death reaches Christine, she seeks solace in a bar where she meets an African American man named Elgin. Elgin initially consoles her, but solace quickly turns into sex and passionate romance. Eventually, Christine lets Elgin get her pregnant, and they decide to get married only to have the relationship turn sour. As Christine's pregnancy progresses, their passion becomes mixed up with various infidelities, accusations, lies, and hostilities. After Rayona is born, Christine raises her, but her relationship with Elgin and her personal stability continue to slide downhill. Her life in Seattle drifts further and further from her previous life on the reservation, and her periodic contact with the reservation only seems to accentuate her distance from it. She returns to the reservation for Lee's funeral only to feel blamed for causing his death, and Aunt Ida spends an uncomfortable week with her in Seattle while visiting a dying relative named Clara.

Ida's Story

In the final section, Ida reveals several surprises that not only fill in gaps in the story but also force the reader to reevaluate other aspects of the story in light of this new information. To begin with, Ida explains that she is not really Christine's mother after all. Christine's real mother is Clara, an aunt who came to take care of Ida's ill mother but ended up getting impregnated by Ida's father instead. To cover up the illicit pregnancy, Ida's father sent Clara and Ida to Denver where Clara could have the baby out of sight, and he instructed Ida to claim to be the baby's real mother when they returned. They planned for Clara to return with Ida and take primary responsibility for raising the child, but later Clara decided to remain in Denver and left Ida to raise Christine all by herself. Several years later, Clara did return to reclaim Christine in hopes of making money by putting her up for adoption, but Father Hurlburt helped Ida claim legal rights over Christine because she has raised Christine as her own daughter.

In addition, Ida also reveals the identity of Lee's father. After spending her youth as the sole parent of someone else's daughter, Ida courted one of the few men who would want her: a wounded veteran named Willard Pretty Dog. Providing each other with mutual solace from their troubled pasts, they became intimate friends, and Ida soon became pregnant with Willard's baby. A few weeks later, however, their relationship was shattered when Willard admitted that he loved her only because she showed compassion on him. They remained friends but never returned to the intimate relationship that they had previously, and Ida eventually gave birth to their son. Following tradition, she named him Lecon after her own father, but she called him Lee to distance him from the negative memories that she had of her father.

Putting a final ironic spin on the plot, the final page of Ida's story reveals how she seduced Father Hurlburt, the same priest who encouraged her both to raise Christine and to befriend Willard. Not only does this weave together several strands from Ida's own life, but it also ironically connects the three generations of women because Ida seduced the same priest who later supervised the priest who would attempt to seduce Rayona. Moreover, Ida does this on the same night that Christine's faith in God is shattered when the world does not come to an end. Nevertheless, many of these ironic connections are only recognized by the reader since the women themselves remain largely unaware of each others' deepest secrets.



One of Rayona's work colleagues on the maintenance crew at Bearpaw Lake State Park. Rayona thinks he probably lifts weights or plays football. He has a crush on Ellen.


Charlene is Christine's "best friend," according to Rayona. She lives in Christine's apartment building and works in the pharmacy of the hospital where Christine is frequently a patient. Christine depends on Charlene to send her illegal refills of percocet to control the pain of her cancer, although we don't learn the nature of her disease until much later. Charlene reappears in Christine's story to warn her that she's killing herself by leaving the hospital, but she fulfills her promise to give Christine one more refill on her percocet prescription.

Buster Cree

Buster Cree, a "reformed mixed-blood from Wyoming who joined the church when he married Polly," is the father of Dale.

Dale Cree

Dale Cree, Polly and Buster's son, falls in love with Pauline when she comes to board at the Crees. He and Pauline marry, and they have a son, Foxy.

Kennedy Cree

Kennedy Cree (Foxy) is Pauline's son and Rayona's cousin whom Ray substitutes for at the rodeo when Foxy gets too drunk to ride. When Ray wins a prize, Foxy is humiliated.

Pauline Cree

Pauline is Clara and Ida's younger sister and Foxy Cree's mother. As Ida gradually becomes closer to Clara, Pauline is left out, though Ida concedes that "Pauline would have made a better mother [to Christine] than either Clara or me." Fed up with Lecon's unemployment and drinking and Annie's helpless condition, Pauline leaves home and gets a job with the Agency, boarding with Polly Cree's family. Pauline falls in love with Polly's son Dale, but when she marries him she asks none of her family to the wedding. Pauline is ashamed of her father's alcoholism and her sister Ida's singlemother status.

Polly Cree

Polly is Buster Cree's wife and the mother of twenty-year-old Dale Cree, who marries Pauline. She is also the midwife who delivers Lee.


See Elgin Taylor


Another of Rayona's work colleagues on the maintenance crew at Bearpaw Lake State Park. Of all her co-workers, Rayona likes him the best "because he's the only guy who pays attention to me."

Ellen DeMarco

A swimming teacher at Bear Lake, Ellen has all the things Rayona lacks: beauty, parents, and money. Ray is so entranced by Ellen's way of life that she fantasizes that a letter Ellen's parents wrote to their daughter is actually written to her.

Evelyn Dial

Evelyn, Sky's wife, is the cook at the Bearpaw Lake State Park who gives Rayona a place to live for a few weeks and acts as a surrogate mother.

Norman Dial

Sky, Evelyn Dial's husband, is the operator of the Conoco station. He introduces Ray to Bearpaw State Park and generously gives up his holiday pay to drive Ray to a rodeo where she hopes to see her mother.


See Kennedy Cree

Annie George

Annie is Lecon's wife, Ida's mother, and Clara's sister, though the difference in ages meant that Clara and Annie were never close. Lecon calls on Clara to do the housekeeping chores when Annie develops heart trouble. Ida blames her mother for not anticipating that Lecon would be sexually interested in Clara. In her illness, however, there is not much that Annie can do to influence events. Her death, while sad, frees Ida at last to have more time for herself.

Clara George

Clara is Annie George's baby sister who comes to live with Ida when she is about twenty years old. Supposedly Christine's aunt, though actually her mother, Clara appears no more than five years older than Ida. Clara gets pregnant by her brother-in-law Lecon shortly after she arrives to help Lecon's wife Annie. To save the family's reputation, Clara makes up a cover story about being raped by a masked drifter. Clara's plan works, but four years later, when she shows up at Ida's to claim the child, Ida thwarts her by getting a birth certificate that says Ida is the birth mother. Christine meets Clara only once as an adult when Clara is in the hospital dying of cancer.

Aunt Ida George

Ida calls herself "a woman who's lived fifty-seven years and worn resentment like a medicine charm for forty…. If I were to live my life dif ferently, I would start with the word No: first to him, my father; to Clara, then to Willard, before they left me; to Lee, to save his life. I was different with Christine, but it turned out no better." In her stubborn isolation, Ida distorts the truth that in the end it was she who rejected Clara and Willard Pretty Dog, not vice-versa. Yet Ida alone knows all the secrets that bind the main characters in the story.

Media Adaptations

  • A Yellow Raft in Blue Water was recorded on an audiocassette by Colleen Dewhurst for Harper Audio in 1990.

Ida is Christine's ostensible mother, although everyone (even Christine) calls her Aunt Ida at her request, so that she can protect herself from disappointment if Christine's real mother, Clara, should ever come back to claim her child. When Clara returns four years later and calls herself Christine's mother, Ida is so shocked that she instinctively brings her fingers, which are carrying a hot teakettle, to her ears, thereby burning a plum-sized hole on her cheek that serves as a permanent reminder of her secret burden. Clara wants to give up Christine for adoption. To block her, Ida arranges for Father Hurlburt to get a birth certificate that declares Ida as Christine's legal mother. To seal Clara's fate, Ida threatens to reveal the truth about Clara's relationship to Lecon.

Ida dotes on Lee, her illegitimate son by Willard, and so Christine feels rejected. She decides to bring up Lee herself, just as she has brought up Christine, never revealing his true father. Ida has persuaded herself that when she was with a man she always "pretended to be stupid" and that she wanted Christine "to see me smart, to know she could be that way herself in front of any man." Ida's intelligence as she grows older is clear, for she successfully leases part of her land to make improvements in her own life. As the oldest of the three main characters, Ida has suffered the most; but by the same token she has perhaps earned the greatest portion of happiness, however small, having raised three children, to varying degrees, on her own and having achieved some financial stability in her life.

Lecon George

Lecon, Christine's real father, is a proud traditional Indian who, weakened by alcoholism, is not able to adapt to the present. When his wife Annie developed heart trouble, Lecon thought Ida's offer to drop out of school and help at home would be seen on the reservation as a sign of male weakness. Realizing this, Annie makes up the tale that Clara is coming to their house because she is homeless. When Lecon gets her pregnant, he readily accepts Clara's plan to pretend the child is Ida's by a stranger. But his remark when he first sees his new daughter—"It's in their family…. Nothing but girls"—shows his essential narrowness. Also disturbing is Lecon's delusion (especially when drunk) that it is Ida's behavior rather than his own that has brought shame on the family. When Lecon dies, Ida feels only relief that he will no longer be a burden to her.

Father Hurlburt

Hurlburt is the priest who recruits Rayona for the teen-age "God Squad" in his parish. Part Indian himself, he is a confidant and intermediary among

the various families in the parish. For example, outside of Lecon, Annie, and Clara, only Father Hurlburt knows that Christine is not Ida's child. It is Father Hurlburt who takes Ida and baby Christine home from the residence for unwed mothers and who later helps Ida obtain the birth certificate. As Pauline and others go along with Clara's fictional story that she was raped by an intruder, Father Hurlburt remains to Ida "the only honest one, tied to me by my secrets."


The third of Rayona's work colleagues on the maintenance crew at Bearpaw Lake State Park, he reminds her of "the chubby guy on 'Happy Days.' "


Lee is Christine's half-brother and the illegitimate son of Ida and Willard. Raised by Ida, Lee never knows his real father. As a child, Lee is known for his good looks and his daredevil attitude. When Lee and Dayton become anti-Vietnam activists, Christine challenges Lee's patriotism, pointing out that Lee's political future as a reservation leader would be ruined if he evaded the draft. Lee enlists, but he dies in Vietnam, driving Christine into the faithless arms of Elgin and sowing new seeds of bitterness in Ida's heart.


See Lecon


See Annie George


See Christine Taylor

Mr. McCutcheon

Mr. McCutcheon is the maintenance supervisor at the Bear Paw Lake State Park who praises Rayona for her work.

Dayton Nickles

Dayton is a close friend of Lee and Christine and shelters her after she returns to the reservation. Later he shows up at the rodeo and takes Rayona back to her mother. Dayton is classified 4-A because his father was killed in World War II. A convicted child molester, Dayton turned his life around after getting out of prison and now has a good job as an accountant for the Tribal Council.

Tom Novak

Father Tom Novak is Father Hurlburt's assistant at the local reservation mission and the butt of Indian jokes because of his naivete. On a trip to a teen conference, he and Rayona have sex on the yellow raft in blue water after Ray saves him from drowning. Tom soon realizes his error and agrees to finance Ray's trip to Seattle.

Mrs. Pretty Dog

Willard's mother, concerned about her son's interest in Ida, finally visits her and sees that they have more than a nurse-patient relationship. At first disturbed because of Ida's low status on the reservation, Mrs. Pretty Dog is satisfied when Ida decides to reject him.

Willard Pretty Dog

Willard as a boy was handsome, but when he comes back from World War II with some of his face missing, he becomes bitter and reclusive. Only Ida goes to see him, hoping that in his present condition he will not find her so plain. She lays her life out before him in all its sadness, and he is moved to accept her love. When he gets Ida pregnant, however, Ida rejects him as a future husband, and he ends up marrying one of the nurses who looked after him in the hospital.


See Rayona Taylor


See Norman Dial

Annabelle Stiffarm

Annabelle is a fellow member of Father Hurlburt's God Squad and a friend of Foxy Cree who accompanies him to the rodeo where Ray substitutes for Foxy.

Christine Taylor

As a young adult, Christine describes herself as "the bastard daughter of a woman [Ida] who wouldn't even admit she was my mother." In fact, however, Christine is the illegitimate daughter of Ida's father Lecon and her sister Clara. Christine, however, is brought up as "Aunt" Ida's daughter and never learns the truth about her real parents. As a child, Christine "was never satisfied," but she develops a blind loyalty to her younger brother Lee and a strong faith in Catholicism, especially the martyred saints.

Christine's faith reaches a crisis when she takes too seriously the contents of the "Portugal letter" in which the end of the world is predicted unless Russia converts to Roman Catholicism. When nothing happens on the appointed night, Christine becomes disillusioned with the Church. Similarly, when Christine finds that Dayton Nickles doesn't want to be her boyfriend, her self-esteem takes such a plunge that "it took me years to forget." Christine's one true friend is her younger brother Lee. "He wasn't just my best friend, he was the only one I trusted, the only one who never let me down." When Lee switches his main allegiance from Christine to Dayton, an anti-Vietnam activist, Christine plots successfully to separate them by telling Lee that being considered unpatriotic would end his political future on the reservation.

Angry at Aunt Ida's disapproval of her promiscuous social life, Christine leaves home and moves in with Ida's sister Pauline's family. She takes a job at the Tribal Council, and continues her playgirl life, eventually leaving for Seattle. Distraught when Dayton writes that Lee is missing in action in Vietnam, Christine meets Elgin in a bar. They marry but it doesn't last, and by the time Ray is a teenager, Christine is dying from cirrhosis of the liver and pancreatic cancer. Angry because Elgin won't take responsibility for Ray, Christine decides to commit suicide. But Ray foils her plan, and Christine is forced to take her to her "Aunt" Ida's, then hitch a ride to Dayton's, where she decides to spend her final days. With the financial and emotional stability that Dayton offers her in his new life after prison, Christine is able to get Ray back into her life for a brief period. She teaches Ray to drive and gives her daughter her prized silver turtle ring. But having learned from the secretive Ida not to reveal painful truths, she can never tell Ray that she is dying.

Elgin Taylor

Elgin is Rayona's black father, although he visits his daughter only occasionally. Though he is still officially married to Christine, he has not taken a consistent role in bringing up Ray. Christine was attracted to him because he gave her hope that Lee might still be alive. Elgin has a fairly steady job as a mailman, but his commitment to Christine and their child is never complete. For Christine, the final straw comes when Elgin borrows her car while she is in the hospital and returns it with a virtually empty gas tank.

Rayona Taylor

Rayona is the fifteen-year-old daughter of Christine and Elgin Taylor, a black serviceman Christine met soon after she learned that Lee was missing in action in Vietnam. Christine and Elgin marry but stop living together around the time Ray is born, and Christine raises her alone. Life has not been easy for Ray. When we first meet her, she is visiting her mother in the hospital. Elgin arrives, and her parents soon start to argue. Rayona doesn't believe that her mother is really sick, but Ray is soon left with the task of persuading Christine not to take a suicidal journey back to Seattle.

When the car breaks down, Christine flees to Dayton's and Ray ends up with Aunt Ida. With Ida to bring up Ray, Christine now hopes she can die without being a burden to her daughter. Ray joins Father Hurlburt and Father Tom's teenage "God Squad" but in her loneliness for a real family, she fantasizes about her real father. Father Tom is sexually attracted to Rayona, and after Rayona saves him from drowning, he experiences "an occasion of sin" with her on the yellow raft. In his guilt and naivete Father Tom gives her train fare back to Seattle to visit her father. Ray, however, decides to stay where she is, and is lucky enough to stumble into a surrogate family and a job at Bear Paw Lake State Park. She proves to be both a good park employee and an appealing boarder to Sky and Evelyn Dial. Ray has concealed the fact that she is a runaway, constructing a fictitious family out of her imagination and a scrap of a letter she found that turns out to have been a letter to Ellen, a swimming instructor at the park whom Ray admires.

When Ray's fantasy is exposed, however, Evelyn forgives her and offers to take her home. Hoping she will see her mother, Ray persuades the Dials to stop off at an Indian rodeo on the way back to the reservation and ends up winning an award for being the "roughest, toughest" broncobuster at the fair. At the rodeo Rayona finds her mother's childhood friend Dayton, who reluctantly takes her back to the reservation and her mother. But nothing has changed. Rayona still wants to believe that Christine is not really sick, and Christine is still caught in the mistakes of her past and overwhelmed with her own problems.

Tina Taylor

See Christine Taylor

Father Tom

See Tom Novak



In 1979, Michael Dorris wrote that "there is no such thing as 'Native American literature,' though it may yet, someday, come into being." Among the requirements for such a literature, Dorris continued, was a "shared consciousness, an inherently identifiable world-view." Expanding on this theme of identity in a 1992 essay, Owens notes that in A Yellow Raft in Blue Water, for the most part, "the individual who would 'be' Indian rather than 'play' Indian is faced with an overwhelming challenge." Only Aunt Ida "becomes … the bearer of the identity and order that are so fragile they may perish in a single generation if unarticulated." Although Ida, too, is unavoidably influenced by the bombardment of mainstream culture, Owens notes that "she can take off her earphones and wig, turn off the television soap operas, and become a story-teller, leaving her 'savings'—a recovered sense of self, identity, authenticity—to Rayona." The other characters in the story, on the other hand, are too enmeshed in sometimes conflicting, sometimes just unknown or unconscious forces of identity. Lee tries to become a Red Power representative but ends up bowing to the mainstream social forces that send him off to die in Vietnam. Lecon never rises above the stereotype of the traditional male, whether Indian or white, who sees women only as the servants of men. And though Christine struggles perhaps the hardest to establish herself as independent, she has only a vague sense of her real mother and not a clue about her real father. She goes from blind acceptance of Catholicism to total disillusionment and outright rejection of her faith. This ignorance and irrationality can be seen as coming partly from Ida's secretiveness but also, especially as she grows older, from Christine's own apparent lack of desire to explain why she is taking a given action, like dropping Rayona off at Ida's and then disappearing. As a result of this lack of communication between mother and daughter, Rayona must negotiate her sense of self and community in a cultural vacuum. As a mixed blood, however, Rayona is different from the other characters (except for Father Hurlburt, who serves as an important link between the white and Indian communities). The positive side of feeling left out that is so common to mixed bloods is that Rayona is willing to try new things. For example, she agrees to impersonate her male cousin at the rodeo in which she wins a prize. (In fact, in an earlier version of the story, which appears in Bartlett, the narrator was Raymond, a male Rayona.) When we leave Rayona at the end of her section of the book, she is actively questioning her mother about the details of the mysterious letter from the Virgin Mary. In this curious, questioning attitude, there is hope that Rayona, like the resilient synthetic fabric whose name she bears, will forge a new identity, neither Indian nor white, male nor female, self-nor other-oriented, that will survive and even endure.

Topics For Further Study

  • As critic Paul Hadella has noted, Dorris's characters in the novel constantly refer to popular songs, movies, and TV programs "as a way of explaining their situations and defining their roles." Determine the lyrics, story, or subject matter and date of composition of as many song titles, TV shows, or movies referred to in the story as you can. By showing what light it casts on any of the characters in the novel, explain the significance, if any, of each reference.
  • Describe the beliefs of the American Indian Movement as it expressed itself in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and compare the attitudes of Rayona, Christine, and Ida toward Lee and Dayton's brief attraction to these beliefs.
  • Research the impact of the Catholic Church, or Christian missionaries in general, on Indian culture and education in the United States. Was there any historical basis for the "Portugal letter," which played an important role in Christine's losing her faith?
  • Dorris's novel has been called a feminist work by Adalaide Morris. Compare the attitudes toward the opposite sex of the following characters—Ida, Lecon, Christine, and Rayona—to justify this view.
  • Compulsive behavior, illness, and disability are important factors in the lives of several characters in the novel. Show how Lecon and Christine's alcoholism, Dayton's child molestation, Leçon's rape of Clara, Willard's disfiguration, and Annie's heart condition affect the course of the plot.

Strength and Weakness

Because Dorris's characters are developed by seeing them from several points of view, the reader gets a more rounded portrait in which different sides of the personality are revealed. This is evident when we examine each major character's strengths and weaknesses and the struggle within each figure to see which attributes will win out. As the youngest major character, Ramona has the least knowledge of what is going on, so ignorance is her main weakness. Thus she interprets Christine's leaving her at Ida's as abandonment, when it is in fact Christine's attempt, however cowardly, to protect her daughter from the truth about her mother's illness. Among Rayona's strengths, however, include courage, seen in her taking Foxy Cree's place in the rodeo. Rayona also shows great curiosity, which is evident in the many questions she is always asking, and her powerful imagination creates alternate identities that help her soothe the pain of not knowing the full truth about her mother and father. Christine's strengths include: her love for Rayona and Lee and her fierce desire to protect them; her fearlessness in taking up dares; and her perseverance and diligence when she is doing something she believes in, like helping the nuns (before her disillusionment). Never understanding the circumstances of her birth, however, and growing up without a father, Christine must constantly wrestle with feelings of isolation and dissatisfaction with her general lot. She also struggles with insecurity when males like Dayton seem to reject her. Ida is probably the most complex of the three major characters. She can count among her strengths her memory of important events in the past, which she thinks of as "savings." Ida also proves herself very practical in the way she outmaneuvers Clara to claim Christine as her legal daughter or manages her property to achieve some financial stability. Ida also shows perseverance in helping to raise three children, only one of whom is her own. She pays a price for her achievements, however. First, Ida is resentful toward her father and Willard, both of whom (like most men, she feels) make her feel stupid. Second, in her desire to cover up the sins of her father and Willard, as she sees them, Ida has isolated herself and left her-self little room for any life of her own, literally branding herself (with the teakettle) as a misfit and recluse in the eyes of others.

Culture Clash

Though Dorris has been criticized for not emphasizing the importance of a distinct native American identity, A Yellow Raft in Blue Water shows that he is well aware of the factors that hamper its development. The book is a virtual catalogue of different forms of culture and the ways they rub against each other, sometimes creating barriers, and occasionally melding. There is Elgin's black culture and its conflict with Christine's upbringing on the reservation. "We're the wrong color for each other," Rayona has heard her mother tell Elgin. "That's what your friends think." There is the white Catholic culture of Father Tom, who knows no Indian language and is the constant butt of Indian humor. There is the more traditional Indian culture in which Ida, who "wears resentment like a medicine charm," has been raised, despite her more recent exposure to Western media. Like the traditional Indian, Ida has an expanded awareness of the past—especially the truth about Christine's parentage and Lee's father. And finally, there is the mixed-blood heritage that exists in both Rayona (Indian-black) and Father Hurlburt (Indian-white). This heritage is both parodied, as in Father Tom's stilted reference to Rayona's "dual heritage," and respected, as seen in Father Hurlburt's important role in the story as a witness to and confidant of at least some of Ida's secrets.


Point of View

Part of Dorris's genius in the book shows in his telling basically the same story from three different points of view. For example, we first interpret Christine's illness through Rayona's eyes (in critic Michiko Kakutani's words) as "a phony play for sympathy." Later, we see the same scene through Christine's own eyes and realize not only that her illness is real but also (again in Kakutani's words) that "her disappearance constitutes not an act of abandonment but a cowardly attempt to save her daughter from the knowledge of her imminent death." Similarly, at the beginning of the story Rayona believes that Aunt Ida is actually her grand-mother but insists that she be called "Aunt" rather then be reminded that Christine was her own illegitimate offspring. In fact, as we learn only in the last section of the novel, Christine is the illegitimate offspring of Ida's father, Lecon, and her aunt, Clara, and Ida is therefore not Christine's mother but rather both her cousin and half-sister. As feminist critic Adalaide Morris has noted, one result of a story made up of similar examples involving this intertwined, intergenerational, multicultural family is a "new first-person plural storyteller" or, in the words of Adrienne Rich, "We who are not the same. We who are many and do not want to be the same." In short, the new "we, the plural" is a shifting coalition of different people, "a site where disparate subjectivities collide, converge, and continue to coexist." Thus, restless and unsatisfied Christine leaves Ida for Seattle, just as Rayona, restless to find her real family, later also leaves Ida, but Rayona and Christine are eventually reunited, despite their differences.

Symbolism and Imagery

Dorris's skill in providing concrete descriptions to suggest larger meanings is evident in the central symbols and recurring images of the book. The imagery in the title itself, for example, suggests the clarity and simplicity of a vision or dream that, for Rayona at least, is attainable only too briefly. Thus the yellow raft recalls not only Ray and Father Tom's sexual incident, which to Ray has the quality of a dream, but also Ellen DeMarco, who Ray first sees poised on the raft, representing "everything I'm not but ought to be." Another central image in the story is hair braiding, in which several separate strands are woven into one. Thus the story opens with Christine pulling Ray's hair into a braid and ends with the image of Ida braiding her own hair. In the same way, Dorris has woven the three separate angles of vision provided by Rayona, Christine, and Ida into one complex but unified tale. As Kakutani has noted, Dorris is also a master of the telling descriptive image: the broken taillight, "spilling a red at a funny angle," or the leaves on the trees, "heavy as tin" on a hot, breezeless day.


Throughout the story, Dorris's constant allusions to songs, television shows, and movies from the 1960s-1980s pop scene emphasizes the degree to which all three major Indian characters have been molded by mainstream American culture rather than traditional Indian customs and beliefs. Rayona describes her mother's face as "like a stumped contestant on 'Jeopardy' with time running out." Christine, who grew up in the Sixties, remembers watching Vietnam protests on TV, listening to "Teen Beat" on the radio, and fantasizing that Dayton was her grieving lover in "Teen Angel." She considers it fitting to leave her daughter a lifetime membership in Video Village, and the two films she takes out on her first visit are significant for how they show the extent to which Christine has assimilated white American culture. "Christine" (1983) is a Stephen King horror movie featuring a car with demonic powers. In "Little Big Man" (1970), one of whose actors Christine claims to have dated, the main character is not a birthright Indian but a 121-year old white man adopted by Indians. Even Aunt Ida, at fifty-seven the oldest major Indian character and therefore one whose life would ostensibly be most traditional, is singing along to a pop song on her Walkman when we first meet her. Ida turns out to be addicted to daytime soap operas on TV. In these examples, which are only some of many in the book, Dorris is suggesting that if there once was a conflict in the eyes of Indians between tribal heritage and mainstream culture or other cultures, it has long since been resolved in favor of mainstream culture. Only a naive European-American character like Father Tom can seriously speak of Rayona's "dual heritage."

Historical Context

The Status of Native Americans in the 1980s

The political situation of Native Americans in the United States is unique. Among many ethnic groups, Indians alone have land called reservations set aside by the government on which they can live without paying the usual land and property taxes. Indians who do not live on reservations pay the same taxes as other citizens. All Indians pay federal and state income taxes and have full voting rights, and receive some special job and health benefits, to which Christine refers. Usually the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs administers reservations. On some reservations, local tribal councils control some political and commercial activities. In 1983, President Reagan issued a policy statement promoting increased economic development on reservations. While many Indian leaders reacted skeptically to the announcement, some reservations have greatly profited from oil, gas, and uranium resources, whiie others have set up lucrative casinos. On other reservations, the tribal government is a major employer. Both Christine and Dayton hold jobs with the local tribal council, and Lee is being groomed for a political future in the tribal government when he goes off to Vietnam. Courts have generally supported Indian land claims, either by granting repossession (usually of only a portion of the lands claimed) or by payments in exchange for relinquishing of claims. Many reservations, however, remain economically underdeveloped. On one small reservation in Wyoming with an unemployment rate of 80 percent, the suicide rate of 233 per 100,000 is almost twenty times the national average. The rate of alcoholism, an important factor in the characterization of both Lecon and Christine, is a serious problem among Indians. Indians are four times more likely to die from alcoholism than the general population. Dorris explores Indian alcoholism

at length in his prize-winning book, The Broken Cord: A Family's Ongoing Struggle with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.

The Indian Power Movement, 1969-1973

During the 1960s, some Indian groups began to press for more economic and political rights. In 1972, the American Indian Movement (AIM) occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Washington; in 1973 AIM members seized Wounded Knee, South Dakota, demanding the return of all lands taken from Indians in violation of treaty agreements. After nine years as a fugitive from prosecution for assault and rioting charges in connection with the seizure, AIM leader Dennis Banks (who received protection in various forms from the governors of both California and New York), finally surrendered in 1983. He served one year of a three-year term before being released in 1985. Like Lee and Dayton, many Indians were inspired by AIM or similar groups to take a stand against the U.S. government in other areas as well, notably in protesting the war in Vietnam. Other pro-Indian activities mentioned in A Yellow Raft in Blue Water include protests over limitation or abrogation of fishing rights and participation in intertribal activities designed to stress Indian unity. Like Christine, however, most Indians rejected these militant tactics. The majority of American Indians during the Vietnam War were patriotic, as is seen in the favorable way Lee is treated by the tribal elders after he decides to enlist. In 1986 the Grandfather Plaque or Amerind Vietnam Plaque was dedicated at Arlington National Cemetery. Roughly 43,000 Native American combatants served in Vietnam, or one out of every four eligible Indian males.

Critical Overview

A Yellow Raft in Blue Water was both a popular and critical success when it was first published in 1987, although some critics (notably Michiko Kakutani) found fault with the way the author withholds crucial information about the secret of Christine's birth, while others (like Robert Narveson) thought he put uncharacteristic words in characters' mouths to make a thematic point. Yet even these critics admitted that the "meticulously delineated world" (Kakutani) and the "drenched … particularity of motive, of action, of perception" (Narveson) in the story moved the reader happily along and created a series of strikingly unique yet interconnnected lives. Reviewer Penelope Moffet also found the major characters in the novel irresistible and Dorris's writing "energetic, understated and seductive." Reiterating the positive reception to the book, Roger Sale called it a "fine novel" with "clearly drawn and clearly felt characters." Writing in 1988, Sale predicted (sadly, in view of Dorris's suicide almost nine years later) that "Michael Dorris works with an impersonality that gives promise that his list of achievements can grow long." A Yellow Raft in Blue Water also found a special place in the writings of feminist critics like Adalaide Morris, who categorized this book, along with two others, as "feminist in their focus on gender but 'postfeminist' in their … return to that antagonist of 'room of one's own' feminism: the greedy, sticky-fingered, endlessly complicated family." Morris noted that "despite its conservative force … the family is the one force in our culture that regularly binds together people of different ages, genders, interests, skills, and sexual preferences and sometimes also people of different ethnic traditions, racial or religious backgrounds, and economic classes." At the "source" and center of A Yellow Raft in Blue Water, as Morris sees it, is Ida, "a figure who embodies the overdetermined, ambiguous multiplicity behind 'we the plural,' a multiplicity Dorris's narrative extends outward from Christine's 'birth' family to the 'family' she finally constructs, a temporary but tenacious alliance between individuals of different genders, ages, races, economic classes, and sexual preferences." Christine's family thus comes to include not only the pureblooded Indian Ida, who is relatively well off because of her land rentals. It also numbers Christine's childhood friend, the half-white (and probable homosexual) Dayton (also relatively well off after a period in prison), who takes in not only Christine, who is genuinely impoverished, but also Christine's Indian-black daughter Rayona. That such a family is unstable in traditional terms goes without saying. In fact, according to Morris, "these coalitions can be effective and lasting only if they are also contested and dialogic, subject to the unending splits, shifts, and struggles that characterize any genuine plurality." For Morris, Dorris's book is part of a "project of constructing a subject position from which such a politics could operate, a first-person plural in which the words 'first,' 'person,' and 'plural' would keep both their separate meanings and their collective force." Whether Dorris's critical reputation will survive the disturbing facts surrounding his suicide in 1997 remains to be seen. But for those who believe that a writer's personal life should be considered completely separate from the works of fiction that he or she creates, there is little question that Dorris's body of work as a whole, and certainly A Yellow Raft in Blue Water, occupy a distinguished place in Native American literature of the late twentieth century.


Robert Bennett

Bennett is a doctoral candidate at the University of California at Santa Barbara and has published essays on various postcolonial and Native American authors in academic journals. In the following essay, he analyzes how Michael Dorris's A Yellow Raft in Blue Water demonstrates the complexity of history by interweaving the stories of three Native American women.

Michael Dorris's A Yellow Raft in Blue Water develops an intricate plot structure that weaves together the lives of three Native American women. Instead of using an all-knowing narrator to tell their stories from a single, consistent perspective, however, Dorris has each character narrate one section of the story from her own biased perspective. Consequently, the novel's three main characters all assume dual functions as combined characternarrators. While this multiplication of characternarrators may initially seem to be a minor part of the plot, a careful reader will recognize that it radically alters the entire experience of reading the novel because the three narrators frequently offer different interpretations of the same event.

When this happens, the reader cannot simply continue reading passively while waiting for the "true" narrator to finally explain what happened because none of the character-narrators has access to all of the facts, and all of the characters are biased by their own experiences and emotions. Instead, the reader must play a more active role in interpreting the novel either by deciding which narrator's story seems most believable or by combining the most reliable pieces from each narrator's story into a coherent whole. This task is made more difficult, however, because Dorris reverses the order of the story. Instead of beginning with the oldest character, Aunt Ida, he begins with the youngest character, Rayona, and works backwards through time.

Since important information about the characters' past is not revealed until the end of the novel, the reader must continually reinterpret everything as each narrator reveals new information about the past. In this sense, A Yellow Raft in Blue Water is not simply a story about three Native American women, but at a deeper level it is also a story about the process of interpretation itself: it explores how people's experiences, biases, and preconceptions influence their explanations of events. This makes the experience of reading the novel more exciting because the reader must constantly reevaluate both the events described in the novel and the narrators who are telling the story.

While William Faulkner, Gertrude Stein, and many other modernist writers have also created novels with multiple narrators, Dorris's use of multiple narrators in A Yellow Raft in Blue Water is particularly interesting because all of his narrators are Native American women. Consequently, Dorris's novel is not just generally about how the world is seen differently by different people, but it is specifically about how gender and ethnicity influence our experiences and understanding. While one might assume that it would be easier for Dorris to represent Native Americans than women because he is part Modoc but not a woman, the critical response to Dorris's work seems to suggest the opposite. Some critics actually argue that Dorris's representations of Native Americans are not strong enough, and Dorris himself has frequently stated that his fiction does not seek to promote any particular Native American agenda. On the other hand, most critics and readers generally agree that Dorris's representations of women are quite convincing.

What Do I Read Next?

  • In Cloud Chamber (1997), Dorris returns to Ida, Christine, and Rayona, focusing this time on their ancestors, including a shipwrecked Spaniard who washed up on the shores of Ireland and his descendant, Rose Mannion. Rose is the central character in this five-generation epic that covers more than one hundred years.
  • Paper Trail (1994) is a collection of essays by Dorris written during the 1980s and 1990s on topics ranging from family and Indians to fetal alcohol syndrome and libraries. Of special interest to readers of A Yellow Raft in Blue Water are the articles describing the important adults in Dorris's own life when he was growing up.
  • Dorris's Morning Girl (1992) is a young adult novel that explores the lives of young Bahamians living in 1492, on the eve of Columbus's discovery of their island. The Book was awarded the 1992 American Library Association (ALA) Scott O'Dell Award for Best Historical Fiction for Young Readers and was named a notable book of the year by Horn Book, School Library Journal, ALA Booklist, and the New York Times Book Review.
  • Tracks (1988), by Michael Dorris's wife Louise Erdrich, is part of a projected quartet of novels by the part-Chippewa novelist that also includes Love Medicine (1984) and The Beet Queen (1986). As a prequel to Love Medicine, Tracks focuses on the crucial moment in the early twentieth century when the Chippewa saw the last part of their centuries-old traditional life vanish. The novel is divided into nine chapters, one for each of the Chippewa seasonal cycles, and uses the same technique of interwoven tales about a complex family group that Dorris employs in A Yellow Raft in Blue Water

As Dorris has explained in various interviews, his ability to understand women comes partly from his own experiences living with many strong women: his mother, grandmothers, aunts, and wife. In addition, his wife, Louise Erdrich, is a famous Native American novelist herself, and their close collaboration has also helped Dorris write about women from a woman's perspective. While reading the novel, therefore, it is important to pay particular attention to how both gender and ethnicity influence the characters' lives. The most significant events in these women's lives, such as bearing and/or raising children or being sexually assaulted, are often specifically connected to their experiences as women. In addition, these women also draw on both their experiences as women and their relationships with other women in order to find strategies for dealing with these challenging events. At the same time, however, one must not lose sight of these women's ethnic identity as Native Americans because they frequently experience even "female" events differently than many white Anglo-American women.

To say that Dorris's writing represents how gender influences experience, however, is not to suggest either that his novel is limited to women's experiences or that it has a narrow interpretation of what it means to be a woman. On the contrary, Dorris's novel also emphasizes traditionally "male" experiences such as going to war. Moreover, both Rayona's rodeo riding and Aunt Ida's seduction of Father Hurlburt demonstrate that Dorris's female characters do not conform to predictable gender stereotypes, and the unconventionality of Dorris's characters is even more evident when he represents their ethnic identity as Native Americans. Aunt Ida's addiction to soap operas and Christine's marriage to a black man are only two examples of the numerous ways in which Dorris's characters seem to mix cultural and ethnic identities instead of remaining rigidly confined by them. In fact, the characters' lives continually and unexpectedly move across cultural boundaries throughout the novel.

After spending their whole lives on the reservation, both Aunt Ida and Christine suddenly find themselves relocated to cities, and for Rayona this process of relocation happens just as abruptly only in reverse. Similarly, at one moment Lee is a Native American activist agitating for tribal sovereignty and pacifism, but the next moment he finds himself enlisted to fight for the United States military itself. Consequently, Dorris's fiction explores both ethnicity and gender but not in any simplistic or deterministic sense. In fact, sometimes there is as much cultural difference between different Native American characters as there is between Native American and non-Native American characters in his novel, and the same can be said for gender identity as well.

By interweaving three generations of Native American women, Dorris's novel also develops a historical dimension that chronicles the evolution of Native American life during most of the twentieth century. The vast differences between Aunt Ida's life and Rayona's demonstrate how Native Americans continue to change and continue to be influenced by history. Like all people, they evolve and adapt to historical changes, and even reservations cannot isolate them from the political and cultural changes influencing the rest of the United States. Consequently, Dorris situates his unnamed Native American reservation against the backdrop of broader forces in U. S. history, which are external to Native American life but still influence it: Catholic missionary work, American popular culture, and the Vietnam War.

In many ways, these external historical forces actually influence the lives of Dorris's characters as powerfully if not more powerfully than any historical forces internal to Native American culture, since these external historical forces either directly or indirectly cause many turning points in the characters' lives: Christine's loss of faith, Lee's death, and Father Tom's sexual advances toward Rayona. When the reader connects these turning points, Dorris's novel suggests that the external forces of American culture not only exert a powerful influence on Native American life but their influence generally destroys Native American culture or forces it to assimilate toward mainstream American culture. In the end, Aunt Ida divides her time between the television or listening to her walkman, Christine grows up on American culture, Lee dies for American politics, and Rayona's urban childhood makes reservation almost a foreign country. It is as if Dorris's characters are almost incapable of resisting the attraction of the dominant culture, even when they attempt to resist it like Lee and Ida.

In closing, however, one must constantly resist the temptation to oversimplify Dorris's novel. Clearly, Dorris does not intend for his novel to be a simplistic denunciation of the evils of Anglo-American history or the impossibility of resisting it, but instead he wants to depict cultural tensions that are more subtle, complex, and multi-dimensional. The world that he represents cannot be reduced into black and white divisions between good and evil. After all, Ida's Native American father is more sexually promiscuous than Father Tom, and he is more directly culpable than Father Hurlburt for deciding Ida's fate. Also, the Catholic missionaries bring as much good to the reservation as they do harm: Father Hurlburt helps raise Christine more than her real Native American mother does, and the missionaries do provide an educational system even if it has some serious problems.

Moreover, there are mutual exchanges between mainstream and Native American cultures, even if those exchanges are not always equal. After all, Father Tom's attempts to assimilate Native American culture resemble Christine's attempts to assimilate American popular culture, and Rayona's return to the reservation suggests that cultural change can run in either direction. What Dorris's novel represents, therefore, is the complexity of history and cultural interactions. In this sense, its historical dimensions parallel its personal ones: both individual lives and cultural histories are constantly retold from many perspectives. Just as the three character-narrators have their own interpretations of their personal, family history, each historian has his or her own interpretation of history itself, so there are as many interpretations of history as there are historians. Additionally, Dorris seems to suggest that no one version of history is completely accurate because a historian cannot take into account all of the facts or overcome all personal bias any more than an individual can. Thus, Dorris suggests that there is value in listening to many versions of history because only by synthesizing their competing claims can we come to understand history's true complexity. Coming to terms with the complexity of Dorris's narrative, therefore, can help us become more aware of the complexity of history itself.

Source: Robert Bennett, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1998.

Louis Owens

In the following excerpt, Owens discusses the significance of identity in the lives of three generations of Native American women.

At the end of Michael Dorris's novel A Yellow Raft in Blue Water (1987), one of the book's three narrators and protagonists, Aunt Ida, is braiding her hair as a priest watches: "As a man with cut hair, he did not identify 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." The metaphor of braiding—tying and blending—illuminates the substance of this novel, for it is, like [Louise] Erdrich's works, a tale of intertwined lives caught up in one another the way distinct narrative threads are woven to make a single story. Like Erdrich, Dorris—part Modoc and for many years a professor of Native American studies at Dartmouth College—constructs his novel out of multiple narratives so that the reader must triangulate to find the "truth" of the fiction. And like Erdrich and other Indian writers, Dorris makes the subject of his fiction the quest for identity through a remembering of the past.

Yellow Raft is told in three parts by three narrators—daughter, mother, grandmother, beginning with the youngest generation—so that as we move through the novel, stories are peeled off one another like layers of the proverbial onion as blanks are gradually filled in and we circle in both time and space from an unnamed Montana reservation to Seattle and back, and from the present to the past and back again. As in so many other fictions by Indian writers, the women in this novel live oddly isolated and self-sufficient lives, raising their children and keeping their stories intact without the aid of the alienated males whose lives intersect briefly with theirs. These intersecting lives are caught up in pathos rather than tragedy, and though most of the events of the novel take place on a reservation and involve characters who identify primarily as Indian, Dorris succeeds in highlighting the universality of tangled and fragile relationships…. Though this book may not be about "real people," these characters suffer through many of the same confusions and conflicts, pleasures and pains that we might find in a Los Angeles barrio or a Chicago suburb. Like Erdrich, Dorris has succeeded in Yellow Raft in allowing his Indian characters to be human to escape from the deadly limitations of stereotyping.

The first narrator of Yellow Raft is Rayona, a young half-Indian, half-African American teenager with all the resiliency of the synthetic fabric for which she is named. Like most mixedbloods in fiction by Indian writers, Rayona is trying to comprehend her life, particularly her abandonment by her Black father and her strangely tenuous connections to her Indian mother, Christine…. Yellow Raft opens with the singular I as Rayona describes her position in her mother's hospital room. Though Rayona does not realize it at the time, her mother, Christine, is dying, having destroyed her internal organs through drinking and hard living. With an intensely undependable mother and a mostly absentee father, of whom she ironically says, "Dad was a temp," Rayona is cast back upon the I that is the novel's first word and the dangerous antithesis of the communal identity central to Native American cultures. Relying mostly upon her self, Rayona has achieved a precariously balanced sense of self that straddles what the lecherous Father Tom calls her "dual heritage."

The closest thing to a secure community Christine can offer her daughter is a lifetime membership at Village Video. "It's like something I'd leave you," Christine says in a statement that offers a brilliant contrast to the legacies of tribal identity left to other characters in [other] novels…. [Video] permeates Yellow Raft, to the extent that the old idea of an Indian "village" could be said to have given way to a more modern—and culturally bankrupt—"Video Village." Christine emphasizes this disturbing transformation when she looks at a videotape of Little Big Man and says, "I dated a guy who played an Indian in that movie." We are left to wonder if the guy was an Indian "playing" what Hollywood defines as Indian or if he was a white man playing an Indian. Either way, there is an unmistakable suggestion that "Indian" is a role to be played and identity something conferred by script and camera. Dorris will reinforce this video omnipresence throughout the novel, with characters constantly referring to movies and television to reaffirm their shifting senses of reality….

Even Aunt Ida, a character with a strong sense of self, seems an MTV caricature when we first encounter her wearing overalls, a "black bouffant wig" tacked on by shiny bobby pins, a dark blue bra, sunglasses, and Walkman speakers. Pushing a lawn mower that has no effect upon the grass, Aunt Ida is belting out, like a Stevie Wonder imitation in the wrong tune, the words to what should be considered the novel's theme song: "I've been looking for love in all the wrong places." For the rest of the novel, Ida will seldom be far from a television set, involving herself in the twisted lives of scripted characters of soap operas while living in virtual isolation from the rest of her family and tribe. And when Christine and Aunt Ida confront one another for the first time after many years, Rayona can only say, "I … watch as though I'm seeing this scene on an old movie and a commercial could come along any time." Christine, in turn, says, "I couldn't guess what Ray had in mind for a grandmother. Probably somebody from TV, Grandma Walton or even Granny from 'The Beverly Hillbillies,' but they were a far cry from Aunt Ida." These mixed-blood characters suffer from a loss of authenticity intensified by an inability to selectively assimilate the words and images besieging them from the ubiquitous media….

The characters in Dorris's novel, seemingly trapped in a dialectic that never moves toward telos, or resolution, incapable of dialogue and without significant community to aid them in developing a coherent sense of self, become comic reflectors for the monologic discourse of the privileged center beamed to them in their isolation. The result is poignantly funny, pathos pointing—like the narrator's frozen father in Winter in the Blood—toward cultural tragedy.

Despite her resiliency, Rayona is as lost between cultures and identities as any character in Indian fiction, truly a stranger in a very bizarre land. Father Tom, who is trying to convince Rayona to go back to Seattle and far from the reservation where she might tell about his sexual advances, says, "And you won't feel so alone, so out of place…. There'll be others in a community of that size who share your dual heritage." In a nicely ironic testimony to her dilemma, the lascivious priest offers Rayona a cheap, pseudo-Indian medallion he has been wearing, saying, "Wear this. Then people will know you're an Indian." Identity is all surface. The center is lost. With a medallion, Rayona may become Native American rather than African American. Rayona's predicament is underscored even more ironically when she stops beneath a sign that reads, "IF LOST, STAY WHERE YOU ARE. DON'T PANIC. YOU WILL BE FOUND." Rayona takes this advice and stays at Bearpaw Lake State Park, where the ladies' restroom "has a cartoon picture of an Indian squaw on the door." She doesn't panic, though she does attempt halfheartedly to appropriate the identity—rich family and all—of a popular, spoiled white girl, and she is found by Sky, a good-hearted draftdodger who doesn't notice trivial details like skin color, and his tough-as-nails wife, Evelyn. Appropriately, Sky and Evelyn—Father Sky, Mother Earth—subsist in the "video village" of contemporary America on TV dinners; and lying on their couch, Rayona muses upon her fragmented self: "It's as though I'm dreaming a lot of lives and I can mix and match the parts into something new each time." Indian identity is further undercut when the wealthy white parents of Rayona's coworker talk of their "adopted" Indian son who lives on a "mission": "When he writes to us now he calls us Mother and Pops just like one of our own kids." Such an image suggests the distantly marginalized voice,… writing back to the metropolitan center—"Pops," the white father—in a poignant imitation of the expected discourse.

Rayona returns to the reservation and her mother via an Indian rodeo, where she achieves a totally unconvincing bronc-busting triumph that reminds everyone of Lee, Christine's brother killed in Vietnam. And once she is back, the three strands of family begin to be woven into one thread. Rayona's mother, Christine, begins the second book of the novel by declaring, "I had to find my own way and I started out in the hole, the bastard daughter of a woman who wouldn't even admit she was my mother." In a novel in which identity is obscure at best, Christine is actually the daughter of Ida's father and Ida's mother's sister, Clara; she is the half-sister of the woman she thinks of as her mother. It is ironic that among many tribes, … it was once common for a man to take his wife's sisters as additional wives, especially if his first wife was in need of assistance and one of her sisters, like Clara, needed a home. According to traditional tribal values, at one time there might have been nothing at all improper about Clara bearing the child of her sister's husband had the situation been handled correctly. But that world is long gone, and Clara's pregnancy is a potentially damning scandal. In spite of the fact that Christine has taught Rayona to speak "Indian" and Ida still knows how to dance traditionally, most values have been lost in the confusion of a reservation where young girls mouth the lyrics to "Poor Little Fool" … while awaiting Armageddon, grandmothers wear black wigs and Walkmans, and a talented boy is labeled "the Indian JFK" and ridiculed by his sister when he speaks of "Mother Earth and Father Sky."

Christine's "brother," Lee, is the son of Ida and Willard Pretty Dog. A warrior, Willard has come home … with hideous scars and no hero's welcome, taken in like a refugee by Ida. Out of pride, Ida has ultimately rejected Willard and never acknowledged him as her son's father. Thus while Christine mistakenly believes Ida to be her mother and Lee her brother, neither Christine nor Lee can claim a father. Noting her differences from Lee, Christine says, "We were so different I wondered if we had the same father…. I studied middle-aged men on the reservation for a clue in their faces." At Lee's funeral, Christine observes, "A woman who was somehow related to us wailed softly," and of the crowd of men she says, "One of them was probably Lee's father, my father, but that was an old question that would never be answered." When Ida finally takes Christine to visit Clara as Clara lies dying in a hospital, Ida drags Christine away quickly, obviously afraid that Clara will confess that she, not Ida, is Christine's mother. Christine, with little time left to live, will never learn the truth of her biological mother, but she will by the end of the novel be accepted once again as a daughter by Ida.

In the third book of the novel, Ida tells her story, and the threads of relationships in the novel become more clear. It is in this book that relationships are also reforged. Christine, who jealously hounded Lee into the military and toward his death, is forgiven by Ida and forgives the bitter old lady in return. Dayton, Lee's best friend, both forgives Christine and is in turn forgiven. Rayona is reunited with Christine and taken in as a daughter by Dayton, the mixedblood with whom Christine lives out her final days. Father Hurlburt, silent witness and participant in all—who is vaguely part Indian and has learned to speak Ida's language—is there in the end to watch and approve. And most significantly, Ida becomes the novel's supreme storyteller, as befits the Indian grandmother. "I tell my story the way I remember, the way I want," she says, adding:

I have to tell this story every day, add to it, revise, invent the parts I forget or never knew. No one but me carries it all and no one will—unless I tell Rayona, who might understand. She's heard her mother's side, and she's got eyes. But she doesn't guess what happened before. She doesn't know my true importance. She doesn't realize that I am the story, and that is my savings, to leave her or not….

Within Ida resides the power to abrogate the authority of that "other" discourse assaulting Indians from the media of Euramerica: she can take off her earphones and wig, turn off the television soap operas, and become a story-teller, leaving her "savings"—a recovered sense of self, identity, authenticity—to Rayona.

Though resolution and closure come with a somewhat unpersuasive rapidity and ease in this novel, A Yellow Raft in Blue Water moves energetically into Welch's Montana terrain to illuminate the lives of Indians who live on vestiges of tribal identities and reservation fringes, bombarded by video and the American Dream. In choosing to write of a nameless tribe on a nameless reservation, Dorris deliberately emphasizes the ordinariness of these experiences…. Writing in a prose style that inundates the reader with an occasionally annoying plethora of incidental detail, Dorris forces his reader to share his characters' experience of incessant strafing by the foreign and the trivial. The world of permanence and signficance, where every detail must count and be counted … has given way to an Indian Video Village in which alien discourses assert a prior authority and resist, with their privileged cacophony, easy assimilation. The individual who would "be" Indian rather than "play" Indian is faced with an overwhelming challenge.

Source: Louis Owens, "Erdrich and Dorris's Mixedbloods and Multiple Narratives," in Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel, University of Oklahoma Press, 1992, pp. 192-224.

Robert D. Narveson

In the following excerpt, Narveson contends that the narratives given by the three charactersare just as perplexing to them as to the reader. Each character is carefully sorting out the overlapping conflicts in their lives.

It used to be said … that there were few memorable women characters in American fiction. I haven't heard that said lately, but I am reminded of it because Michael Dorris's novel has three memorable women characters as narrators.

This three-generational story unfolds backward. Its narrators, each telling one large chunk of the story, are what we have been persuaded to call Native American, but what they themselves call Indian. The first to narrate is fifteen-year-old Rayona whose father is black but who is raised by her Indian mother, about whom she knows much and doesn't know more; the second is Rayona's wayward mother Christine, who doesn't know anything at all about her mother; the third is the woman whom both call Aunt Ida, who raised Christine and keeps the secret of her motherhood.

Who is she really, this non-grandmother who insists on being called Aunt Ida? The question is introduced early by Rayona and answered late by Ida herself. Much of the suspense of the novel comes from waiting to get this and other things straightened out. In a novel, we can be interested in what has happened already, what is happening now, and what will happen. Here, beyond our pleasure in the sharp particularity of what is happening now, the question is less what will happen than what has already happened long before.

Rayona, the fifteen-year-old who narrates first, suffers from feelings of rejection and neglect. Her father comes home rarely; her mother, sick, wrapped up in her own affairs (lots of them), takes her from Seattle to Aunt Ida's on a reservation in Montana and there deserts her. Aunt Ida takes her in, after a fashion. Rayona finds the friendliest refuge of her life while working at a state park where she lives with a warm-hearted middle-aged hippie couple—it's difficult to describe this briefly—who take her to a rodeo where she rides a wild mare for her Indian cousin, who is too drunk to take his turn. Once back together, she and her mother achieve a fragile reconciliation. But her mother's behavior is still a mystery waiting to be cleared up.

At the end of Rayona's section, Christine tells her about the schoolgirl experience because of which she "lost her faith." One New Year's night, she had waited for the world to end, a termination predicted by her imaginative Catholic nun teachers. Next day she had asked why it hadn't happened and was told "It's a mystery." Her disillusionment had been extreme: "A mystery. The old three-in-one answer. I never went to church again." Christine refers to the experience in her own narration, and Aunt Ida tells it again in hers. Mystery, as I say, is important to the story. Christine goes on to tell us much more that we are entertained to learn and glad to know, but more knowledge can mean not less but more mystery.

"Tell all the truth but tell it slant." So said Emily Dickinson. I do not suppose that these characters could say directly what they think or feel, or that it would be better if they could. Michael Dorris displays confidence in what his fiction can do and how it should do it. The understated scene of reconciliation with which Christine ends her story gets its emotional power (at least for me) from eloquent details ostensibly about other things: "It was a shock to see the dark glasses on my face. The light was so bright and gold I had forgotten I had them on." This example is representative.

This fiction, however, more than most, makes difficult the question of how the story gets told. Each of the women narrates in the first person, but when, and to whom, and why, and in what relation to the narrations of the other two? The narratives hang suspended in space and time. Why and how do Rayona and Christine tell their stories? Is it for their own sakes? Is it because of things about their mothers, and consequently about themselves, they don't feel that they know or understand and want to puzzle out? Not that that's the whole story, but it's central to the mystery that absorbs them. It's why, after meeting Rayona and hearing her story, I want to hear Christine, and after hearing Christine, I wait for Aunt Ida to clear things up, as to an extent she does.

In Aunt Ida's section, the question of narrative stance rises even more insistently. Aunt Ida says, rather too self-consciously, "I have to tell this story every day, add to it, revise, invent the parts I forget or never knew. No one but me carries it all and no one will—unless I tell Rayona, who might understand." We don't observe Aunt Ida telling her story every day, and she's not revising it while we watch (some storytellers, after all, do that). If she's inventing parts she has forgotten or never knew, I, as reader, will never know it. "My recollections are not tied to white paper," she says. "They have the depth of time." So I'm to imagine I'm overhearing her thoughts? The problem with so thinking is that what she says is not tailored to the needs of any audience she could imagine. Instead it is tailored to the needs of the audience imagined by the author who has contrived all three narrators. It isn't Aunt Ida's imagined need to tell that makes her story end with this recollection from when Christine was in school:

"What are you doing?" Father Hurlburt asked.

As a man, he did not identify the rhythm of three strands, the whispering of coming and going, of twisting and tying and blending, of catching and of letting go, of braiding.

The image is lovely, suggesting the intricate intertwining of the lives of the three women. Note also the echo of the "three-in-one" from a passage quoted earlier. The image comments aptly on the three narratives as a whole. Too aptly. The author could hardly be more intrusive if he returned to pre-Jamesian omniscience. The image too evidently serves the narrator's desire to make his thematic point.

I do not suggest that transparent contrivances of this sort obtruded themselves on my conscious ness with great frequency as I read. Mostly I read along happily, noting and enjoying the solid particularity of narration. The book is drenched in particularity of motive, of action, of perception. Each character is distinct, each sharply drawn, each living a convincingly human life. Dorris does not focus insistently on the Indian identity of his characters, but makes what is Indian in them contribute to their identities as individuals in a way that seems perfectly natural and taken for granted. It becomes clear before the book's end that what braids to gether these life stories is place, family, gender, tribe, nation—all those geographical, cultural, and biological determinants that combine with individual passion and will to form unique yet interconnected human lives.

Source: Robert D. Narveson, in a review of Yellow Raft in Blue Water, in Prairie Schooner, Vol. 63, No. 3, Fall, 1989, pp. 126-28.


Michael Dorris, "A Yellow Raft in Blue Water," in The New Native American Novel, Mary Bartlett, ed., University of New Mexico Press, 1986, pp. 93-107. Cited in Hadella (1994) and Owens (1992).

Michael Dorris, "Native American Literature in an Ethnohistorical Context," in College English, Vol. 41 October, 1979, pp. 147-62. Cited in Owens (1987).

Paul Hadella, "Michael Anthony Dorris," in Reference Guide to American Literature, St. James Press, 1994, pp. 263-65.

Michiko Kakutani, "Multiple Perspectives," New York Times, May 9, 1987, p. 17.

Penelope Moffet, review of A Yellow Raft in Blue Water, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 21, 1987, p. 2.

Adalaide Morris, "First Persons Plural in Contemporary Feminist Fiction," Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, Vol. 11, No. 1, Spring, 1992, pp. 11-30.

Robert D. Narveson, review of A Yellow Raft in Blue Water, Prairie Schooner, Vol. 63, No. 3, Fall, 1989, pp. 126-28.

Louis Owens, "Acts of Recovery: The American Indian Novel in the '80s," Western American Literature, Vol. 23, No. 1, Spring, 1987, pp. 55-7.

Louis Owens, "Erdrich and Dorris's Mixedbloods and Multiple Narratives," in Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel, University of Oklahoma Press, 1992, pp. 218-24.

Adrienne Rich, "Notes toward a Politics of Location," in Blood, Bread, and Poetry: Selected Prose 1979-1985, Norton , 1986, p. 25. Cited in Morris.

Roger Sale, "American Novels, 1987," a review of nine novels, including A Yellow Raft in Blue Water, in The Massachusetts Review, Vol. 29, No. 1, Spring, 1988, pp. 71-86.

For Further Study

Hans Bak, "The Kaleidoscope of History: Michael Dorris and Louise Erdrich's The Crown of Columbus (with a coda on Gerald Vizenor's The Heirs of Columbus," in Deferring a Dream: Literary Sub-versions of the American Columbiad, edited by Gert Buelens and Ernst Rudin, Birkhauser Verlag, 1994, pp. 99-119.

An analysis of how Dorris's novels rewrite history by including the previously marginalized perspectives of Native Americans.

Anatole Broyard, "Eccentricity Was All They Could Afford," review in The New York Times Book Review, June 7, 1987, p.7.

This review argues that Dorris's excellent writing and complex plot give significance to the otherwise uneventful lives of his characters.

Allan Chavkin and Nancy Feyl Chavkin, editors, Conversations with Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris, University Press of Mississippi, 1994.

These interviews with Michael Dorris and/or Louise Erdrich, his wife, help explain how Dorris sees his own fiction.

David Cowart, '"The Rhythm of Three Strands': Cultural Braiding in Dorris's A Yellow Raft in Blue Water," in Studies in American Indian Literatures: The Journal of the Association for the Study of American Indian Literatures, Vol. 8, No. 1, Spring, 1996, pp. 1-12.

An analysis of how Dorris's three narrators weave diverse experiences and perspectives into a complex plot.

Louise Erdrich, Conversations with Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris, University Press of Mississippi, 1994.

A more detailed examination of the nature of the unusually close collaboration between these two Native American writers who were also husband and wife.

Louis Owens, "Acts of Recovery: The American Indian Novel in the '80s," in Western American Literature, Vol. 22, No. 1, Spring, 1987, pp. 53-57.

This review argues that Dorris's novel contributes to a recent renaissance of excellent, sophisticated Native American fiction.

Ann Rayson, "Shifting Identity in the Work of Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris," in Studies in American Indian Literatures: The Journal of the Association for the Study of American Indian Literatures, Vol. 3, No. 4, Winter, 1991, pp. 27-36.

An analysis of how Dorris's collaboration with his wife, Louise Erdrich, enables him to write about situations from diverse racial and gender perspectives.

Barbara K. Robins, "Michael (Anthony) Dorris," Dictionary of Native American Literature,, Garland, 1994, pp. 417-22.

A brief summary of Michael Dorris's life and a general introduction to the themes developed in both his literary and non-literary writings.

Hertha D. Wong, "An Interview with Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris," in North Dakota Quarterly, Vol. 55, No. 1, Winter, 1987, pp. 196-218.

An interview with Michael Dorris and Louise Erdrich, his wife, which describes their collaboration in writing A Yellow Raft in Blue Water and explains how some of the material for the novel derives from their personal experiences.