This scrap of paper in my hand makes me feel poor in a way like I just heard of rich. Jealous. What kind of a person would throw it away?
This passage is from Chapter 5, when Rayona finds the letter on the ground during her first day as a custodian at Bearpaw Lake. The picture of family life Rayona sees in the letter is an ideal one, with loving parents, a house with a lawn, and a pet. This vision is a far cry from Rayona’s family life, which is anything but conventional or happy. Rayona feels like neither of her parents wants her, and the contrast between her life and the one in the letter is what makes that world so enticing to Rayona. In the passage above, however, Rayona does not feel joyful upon discovering the letter, and while it reveals to her that she is “poor” it does not do anything to counteract her circumstances and make her “rich.” Therefore, even before we learn more about the letter, we can guess that it is doomed to fail as therapy, since it inspires envy without actually producing anything productive. Although she expresses some indignation that some children can be so lucky without appreciating it, Rayona does not realize the futility of envying the recipient of the letter when she first finds it, and the letter inspires more awe than anger. For a while, the letter becomes Rayona’s exit from her life, from which she can draw the feelings of worth and security that she would ordinarily get from her family. Only later, when she comes to accept her real family, can Rayona throw the letter away and acknowledge that for her, it serves no more purpose than a piece of garbage.
[S]he lights Kent after Kent and the room fills with smoke while she kills the bottle. . . . Those nights I help her to bed.
In school they had taught her all this crap about drinking and how bad it was for you. . . . Sometimes I found myself sneaking around my own apartment like some kid, hiding a bottle of V.O. in a shoebox and dreaming up excuses to satisfy her.
These two passages, from Chapter 2 and Chapter 14 respectively, demonstrate how Dorris shows us divergent points of view on touchy issues like Christine’s substance abuse. In the first passage, told from Rayona’s point of view, Christine is clearly a drunk, out of control and dangerous to herself. When she drinks, according to Rayona, Christine becomes so incapacitated that their roles are almost reversed, and it is Rayona who is forced to make the motherly gesture of putting Christine to bed. In the second passage, however, Christine speaks with righteous indignation, as if she were only a moderate drinker unjustly accused by a paranoid mother. Ironically, the language that Christine uses in chapter 14 unconsciously mirrors the situation Rayona describes, in which Rayona is the stern mother and Christine has to sneak around the apartment “like some damn kid.” The difference between these two viewpoints is evidence of the power of subjectivity, and of how differently two people can see the same thing. The fact that they employ similar imagery, however, shows that even the most dissimilar viewpoints can be built around the same basic grains of truth.
Rayona gave me something to be, made me like other women with children. I was nobody’s regular daughter, nobody’s sister, usually nobody’s wife, but I was her mother full time.
Christine makes this statement in Chapter 13, and it demonstrates how the birth of Rayona marks the end of Christine’s search for her identity. Christine’s search has taken her through various stages and associations, but all of these have turned out to be unsatisfying, leaving too many questions unanswered. Before she says the words above, Christine lists all of her failed attempts to find herself by associating with others, attempts that we hear about as Christine tells her story. This passage emphasizes Rayona’s importance to Christine, something we often lose sight of in Christine’s dealings with her daughter. It demonstrates that Rayona is the central point of Christine’s existence and that Christine’s identity as a mother finally gives her a place to belong. Again, however, the quotation ends with Christine’s highly subjective claim that “I was her mother full time.” This description of their relationship is one that Rayona might dispute, especially in light of the fact that Christine leaves Rayona on her own when Rayona is just fifteen. For this reason, Christine’s assertion that she is Rayona’s “mother full time” is not enough to prevent conflict between the two. Before Rayona and Christine can be reconciled, it is necessary for Rayona to see herself as Christine’s daughter full time as well.
I saw my greatest hits, the K-Tel Christine Taylor album, offered on a late show commercial: two or three bittersweet C&W cuts of Lee, a rhythm-and-blues section starring Elgin, a war dance song for Aunt Ida, and some rock and roll for my teenage adventures. Rayona was all ballads.
This quotation is part of Christine’s musings at the beginning of Chapter 14, as she reflects on life immediately after learning that she has just six more months to live. The fact that Christine phrases her retrospective in terms of music indicates the importance that Dorris places on songs. Where many people might turn to visual images or to religion to reflect on their past, Christine’s first impulse when she receives the news she is dying is to compile her life onto an album. The styles of music she ascribes to each of the important people in her life are representative of her feelings regarding these people as individuals and their respective roles in her life, which shows that music offers her the best way of expressing her complicated emotions. In the same way that Ida is most comfortable speaking in Indian, Christine is most comfortable speaking in musical terms, and in many ways music is a more adequate medium for her thoughts than words are.
When I stuck a plaited palm behind [a religious calendar] at the end of Lent I would realize the pages had not been turned and bring it up to date. Then I’d forget again. In my house, Christ was always being born or rising from the dead.
Here, in a passage in Ida’s narration in Chapter 20, we see how limited Ida’s involvement with religion has been, and how death and resurrection have a prominent role in the novel. Ida’s words, particularly the phrase, “Then I’d forget again,” emphasize how frequently the women in her family turn toward and then away from the church. It is interesting that Ida mentions the “plaited” palm she places behind the calendar at the end of Lent because the plait, a synonym of “braid,” is an image Dorris uses to represent the intertwining narratives of the novel itself. In the Christian faith, the palm is associated with death and resurrection, and so the image of a plait combined with the image of a palm frond could be read as a metaphor for the way the death and rebirth are always overlapping and intersecting over the course of the three generations. Death and rebirth in the novel appear both literally and as the the death and rebirth of the characters’ identities. The plaited palm is symbolic of all the forms of death that Ida, Christine, and Rayona experience over the course of their stories.