Rayona is the product of generations of struggle and misunderstanding, and her coming-of-age is made especially difficult by the problems that have plagued her family since Ida first agreed to pose as Christine’s mother. Much of Rayona’s past is kept from her by her mother, Christine, and by Ida. However, Rayona is not aware of this secrecy so she does not know to look behind it or to seek to understand why her mother and presumed grandmother behave so strangely toward her. For this reason, she takes their actions at face value, often grossly misunderstanding them. Most of the time, Rayona’s innate alertness and capacity for acute observation cause her to draw conclusions about people based solely on their actions and without taking their situations into account. To some extent, the novel can be seen as an argument against this highly literal way of perceiving the world.
Rayona is constantly trying to find her place and identity in the world, a task made especially difficult by her lack of information regarding her heritage. Since she has so little sense of self, Rayona often forms opinions of herself based on the way she thinks others see her: “[t]oo big, too smart, not Black, not Indian, not friendly.” Rayona longs to be normal, to fit in, and especially to find a less dysfunctional family life. The family Rayona sees described in the letter she finds at Bearpaw Lake becomes her ideal. Rayona feels that a family should be the one place where she is always welcome, and it takes her most of the novel to realize that hers is one of those families after all.
Despite Rayona’s disappointments and frustrations, her story ends on an optimistic note and she emerges as the future of her family. When Ida begins her story, she explains that she may one day tell it to Rayona, “who might understand.” Rayona is therefore one of the few characters in the novel who may have the opportunity both to understand her past and to take control of her future. If any character in the novel can finally break from the bonds of secrecy, shame, guilt, and misunderstanding, it is Rayona.
Christine is remarkable for the dramatic differences between her inner self and the self she presents to those around her. In the eyes of her daughter, Rayona, Christine appears to be irrational and irresponsible—hardly the attributes of an ideal mother. But when Christine has the opportunity to tell her story, her behavior becomes more understandable. Christine’s main problem in relationships with others, especially with Rayona, is her inability to translate her feelings into actions. This weakness naturally causes problems between Christine and Rayona, as Rayona tends to judge others based solely upon their actions.
Christine passes through a number of different stages and personalities in her life. She is first bold and brave, then deeply religious, and finally reckless. This irresponsibility continues even after Rayona is born: Christine takes her child to bars when she cannot find a babysitter. Because Christine does not makes a transition from being the life of the party to being a mother, she cannot fulfill the role that Rayona imagines a mother should. It is not until she knows she is dying that Christine really begins to act like a mother, after she realizes that Rayona will be all that is left of her life once she is gone.
Christine is the bridge between old and new in the novel. She is responsible for Rayona’s knowledge of the world, but her own misunderstandings are compounded as they are passed on to her daughter. She is connected both to the city and to the reservation, and both places shape her personality. She represents a transition from old to new, during the difficult period when old problems have yet to fully heal but new ones are already beginning.
Ida is by far the most mysterious and taciturn character in the novel. Christine and Rayona know the world Ida has created for them but almost nothing of the family before her. Ida’s entire relationship with the world is built on lies from the time she is fifteen years old (the same age Rayona is in her section of the novel). Manipulated and betrayed by people she trusted, Ida commits herself to withdrawing from the world and refuses to interact except on her own terms. Her silence creates confusion and misunderstanding in the lives of the children she raises, and this confusion and misunderstanding are in turn passed on to Rayona. After Ida’s parents and aunt uproot her life, Ida does her best to lay a new foundation, but what she builds is shaky enough to make the lives of the future generations unsteady.
Unlike Christine, Ida does not grow and change. As she herself puts it, “I never grew up, but I got old.” Ida is an old woman, but her emotions have never grown or evolved. Ida goes to the motherhouse in Colorado with Clara and returns with a baby, but otherwise she is unchanged. Ida spends every day in the same routine of chores. She improves her house and adds television to her schedule, but for the most part does the same thing every day. The only man she ever pursues is Willard, her old childhood crush. Much of this paralysis comes from Ida’s determination not to become emotionally attached to anyone, and her desire to remain safely within her sphere of control prevents her from ever trying new things.
Ida represents the secret heritage of her family, and the wounds we see Rayona coping within the “Rayona” section of the novel had in fact been inflicted in Ida’s time. Thus, although Ida speaks her part in the last section of the novel, she also represents the beginning of the story, and it is to her that we must turn to understand fully the stories that Christine and Rayona have to tell.