A Yellow Raft in Blue Water


The last word in this novel is braiding, and in this word choice, Michael Dorris hints at how he saw the process of writing it, and how he expected the reading experience would be. The structure is three novellas combined into one novel. Each novella is told in the first person point of view by its protagonist, and combined, they reveal the lives of three generations of a Native American family. It moves backwards in time, beginning with the youngest, Rayona, passing through her mother, Christine, and ending with Rayona’s grandmother, Aunt Ida. It begins in the 1980s and moves backwards to the 1940s.

Each of the stories are interesting and compelling. Rayona must make her own way after her mother abandons her at Aunt Ida’s. Decades earlier, Christine, a teenager, feels inferior to her shining-star brother, Lee. And moving further back in time, Ida makes a secret sacrifice to save the family’s reputation, and in so doing, creates a familial riff that would echo through time to Rayona’s life.

This is a story of a family falling apart. Because of their history, the family is comprised of three women: Rayona, Christine, and Aunt Ida. They love each other, and in reading it, I felt the love each has for the others. The problem is: They don’t feel the love between them. They don’t express it. Each had learned to wear a spiteful facade, a mask of indifference, as if they fear the simple words of affection–I love you–if spoken aloud, would expose their vulnerabilities. In one line, Dorris expressed his theme, or at least the theme I pulled from it: Everybody loved everybody else and no one was happy.

Characters and emotions, not plot, drive this novel forward. As such, I would recommend it to readers who value character development over plot. Plot happens. Dynamic decisions are made, drama ensues, but it’s the characters and how they respond that makes this novel interesting and worth reading.

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