Michael Dorris

A Yellow Raft in Blue Water

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A Yellow Raft in Blue Water Summary

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Set mainly near Bearpaw Lake, Wyoming, Michael Dorris’s historical fiction, A Yellow Raft in Blue Water (1987), follows the lives of three women from successive generations of a Native American family, telling their stories in reverse chronological order. The novel begins with the story of Rayona, a half African-American girl who grows up on a reservation, and is followed by the story of her mother, Christine, and then that of Christine’s mother who goes by Aunt Ida. The novel is well known for its rich account of the different frictions and collisions with modernity that Native American and mixed-race people have endured. It concerns itself also with themes such as identity, family, and genealogy, which are integral to American history.

Rayona visits her mother, Christine, in a hospital. Christine has a bitter relationship with Elgin, Rayona’s father, and angers him so much that he refuses to pick her up after her doctors release her. Christine decides to drive Rayona to the home of Aunt Ida on the Indian reservation. Rayona is upset that she is being forced to spend time with her grandmother, but Christine decides to leave her there, hoping they might form a bond. Rayona retaliates by running away from the reservation and encounters Father Tom, a priest at her school. Father Tom drives off with her, telling her that they are going to a teen retreat; instead, he takes her to a park and sexually assaults her. Father Tom spins the blame for the molestation onto Rayona and recommends that she move out of the area.

The priest sends Rayona to Seattle, Washington; nevertheless, she returns, eventually, to work at Bear Paw State Park. There, she befriends two coworkers Evelyn and Sky. She lodges with them briefly but then decides to return to the reservation. When her cousin becomes too drunk to participate in the rodeo, Rayona rides for her, finding out that the horse’s owner is Dayton, her mother’s past boyfriend, with whom she is living again. They reconcile, and Christine forgives Rayona for leaving without telling her or Aunt Ida where she was going.

The next section is the story of Christine. As a young girl, she lives with her brother, Lee, who is widely considered to be the most handsome boy in town. Christine does not believe that she and Lee share a father since she feels considerably less attractive than him, but her attempts to interrogate Aunt Ida fail. Because Aunt Ida is insecure that she has never actually married, she forbids Christine and her brother from calling her “mom.” Christine develops a crush on her brother’s best friend, Dayton. After the onset of the Vietnam War, Dayton and Lee are enlisted in combat. Dayton sends a letter to Christine conveying that Lee has gone missing in action. That night, Christine goes to a bar and meets a soldier named Elgin who vows to recover Lee. Christine falls quickly in love with him; not long after, they marry and give birth to Rayona. Elgin’s frequent absence hovers over their relationship, however, eventually causing Christine to leave for the reservation. Christine develops a worsening addiction to alcohol, and suffers chronic liver failure, with a prognosis of six months left to live. In her final days, she and Dayton help teach Rayona how to drive. She gives Rayona her silver ring, and the two forgive each other.

The final section follows Ida, beginning when her aunt, Clara, comes to the reservation to help care for her Ida’s ailing mother. Ida, along with her sister, Pauline, look forward to meeting an educated girl from the city. Ida’s father, Lecon, has an affair with Clara, and they give birth to Christine. Ida and Clara then move into a convent, and Ida decides to legally adopt Christine and raise her as her own. The nuns proclaim that Ida should go by “Aunt Ida” since she is Christine’s biological sister, not her mother. Ida and Christine are visited several times by Clara, who tries to recover Christine and have her adopted, but Ida fends her off.

A few years later, Willard Pretty Dog returns to the reservation after serving in combat. Willard had once been known as the most handsome boy on the reservation, but a rumor spreads that he has been mutilated in combat. Ida cares for his wounds and falls in love, giving birth to their baby, Lee. Willard receives plastic surgery for his disfigured face, becoming handsome again. He tells his mother he is thankful for Ida’s help, qualifying that she is not intelligent or beautiful. Heartbroken, Ida leaves him. She spends the rest of her life with Christine and Lee, becoming partial to Christine, though Christine perceives her as liking Lee more.

The novel ends on the roof of Christine and Ida’s house. They wait for the apocalypse, having read a prediction about it in a viral email. Ida is skeptical about it being the end of the world but participates to make Christine happy. Ida pantomimes the act of making a braid. Despite the frictions of their histories and identities, A Yellow Raft in Blue Water ends on this symbolic suggestion that the three women’s lives and fates are intertwined.