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Michael Dorris: A Yellow Raft in Blue Water

Dorris is not the first writer to write about Native Americans, but he may well be the first to write about a Native American of mixed African-American and Native American blood. Rayona, the fifteen year old girl who is the narrator of the first part of this novel, is the daughter of Elgin, an African-American postal worker and Christine, a Native American who, at the start of the novel is in hospital after another of her drinking binges, where Rayona is visiting her. Elgin shows up at the hospital but is not going to get back with Christine, as she hoped. When she leaves hospital, she goes to stay with the woman who may or may not be her mother, Aunt Ida, but soon argues with her, leaving Rayona there. Rayona joins the local religious group, the God Squad, where she is befriended by a Catholic priest. When he makes advances to her, she leaves, but with his financial help. Drifting around, she ends up at a state park, where she gets a job for the summer. Still looking for her mother, she takes part in a rodeo and wins a prize. The horse owner turns out to be her mother’s part-time boyfriend, Dayton, but when mother and daughter get back together, they row.

The second part is narrated by Christine. She tells of her early life with Aunt Ida and how she and her half-brother, Lee, were close but never knew who their fathers were. When Dayton moves onto the reservation, he and Lee become good friends. Christine is jealous and persuades her half-brother to go to Vietnam. However, when he is missing in action, she feels guilty. She meets Elgin, gets pregnant and marries him but they soon turn out to be incompatible. She keeps hoping that they will get back together but they do not. Christine becomes an alcoholic and soon realises that she is seriously ill but does get back together with Dayton.

The third part is told by Aunt Ida. We learn that Christine is not her daughter, but the daughter of her aunt Clara, made pregnant by Ida’s father/Clara’s brother-in-law. Ida raises Christine but the affair had caused a lot of problems in the family, particularly when Clara tries to claim the baby as her own. Her problems get worse when she is able to get Willard Pretty Dog. He was once the best-looking boy on the reservation but has been badly scarred in the war. When an operation restores his former beauty, Ida knows that she can no longer keep him and lets him go, even though she is pregnant with Lee. Her apparent coldness to Christine and Rayona is clearly a result of her actions both as regard Aunt Clara and Willard.

Dorris pulls no punches about life on the reservation. Alcoholism is ever-present, as are racism (particularly towards Rayona, because of her mixed blood), casual relationships and religion seen as a negative influence. He tells the story from differing point of views but resists the temptation for all the main characters to come together and understand one another at the end. Christine and Rayona, for example, are essentially left in the dark about Aunt Ida’s past. It is generally accepted that this is his best book and is a worthy testament to his life.

Publishing history

First published 1987 by Henry Holt