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A Yellow Raft in Blue Water

Michael Dorris

Chapter 18

Chapter 17

Chapter 19

Summary: Chapter 18

The nuns at the motherhouse in Denver are very impressed by the story of Clara’s rape, and as she embellishes her story more and more the nuns begin to make her out as a saint or martyr. Posing as Clara’s sister, Ida pays for their room and board by doing manual labor for the nuns. The nuns want Clara to give up her baby for adoption and become a nun herself. Ida looks forward to returning home, resuming a normal life, and getting a chance to rest. Ida receives one letter from Pauline, on the back of which is scrawled a quick note relating how their parents are fighting and how Pauline hates living at home.

Clara has a baby girl whom the nuns name Christine. When the nuns come to bring Ida the news, she pretends not to speak English well enough to understand, which she has been doing since her arrival at the motherhouse. The nuns explain that she is “Aunt Ida” now. Ida demands to see Clara, and although the nuns object, Ida is unrelenting. Clara tells Ida that she is planning to give Christine up for adoption, but Ida rejects the plan. When Ida threatens to tell the nuns the truth about the baby’s father, Clara lets Ida take Christine home and promises that she will soon return home as well.

Father Hurlburt picks Ida up after her bus ride from Colorado. On the ride back to Ida’s house, he shows off some of the Indian phrases he has learned. He tells Ida that his grandmother was Native American, and Ida can tell from his appearance that he is telling the truth. Ida realizes that this must be why she saw Father Hurlburt as more than a priest on the night that he paid his first visit to Ida and her family. Father Hurlburt also tells Ida that Pauline is no longer living with their parents because Lecon’s drinking has become a problem. When Ida and Father Hurlburt arrive at Ida’s old house, Lecon comes out to greet them. He is visibly disappointed that Clara is not with them and also disappointed that his child is a girl.

The next two and a half years are monotonous for Ida. Her mother’s health gets worse. Although Christine is not a pretty child, her fearlessness makes her special. Ida makes Christine call her “Aunt Ida,” because this name allows Ida to distance herself from the child. Ida knows that one day Clara will come and that she might try to take Christine with her. Father Hurlburt makes regular visits to Ida’s house during this time. Ida and Father Hurlburt play with Christine, and while he helps Ida with her studies she helps him practice the Indian language. Ida enjoys Father Hurlburt’s visits but does not want to let it show because she worries that he will stop coming if she lets on how much his presence means to her. One day, Father Hurlburt stops by to say that he won’t be able to make the visit the next day. Ida says it does not matter to her, but Father Hurlburt says it matters to him. He says he can stay if Ida has time, so she invites him in for tea.

Clara finally shows up at Ida’s house four years after her last visit. The two women hardly recognize each other. Clara has come to see Christine, so she goes into Christine’s room and wakes her up. Ida stays in the kitchen and is so distracted by the idea that Clara is with Christine that she accidentally puts a hot ladle on her cheek, burning herself severely. When Clara describes herself as Christine’s mother, Christine accepts it without question, not understanding the word “mother.” Lecon, who is away working when Clara arrives, comes home drunk on Friday night. He has been in a fight and is behaving unreasonably, but he straightens up when he hears that Clara has come back. Clara and Lecon avoid each other around the house. Lecon takes Ida and Christine to church, and then they all have dinner with Pauline’s church family, the Crees. Ida can tell just from looking at Pauline that her sister is in love with Dale Cree.

Clara tells the story of her life in Denver with resentment. The nuns evicted Clara, and she then held and lost a string of jobs. Clara has stopped by the reservation as a break between her life in Denver and a new life she is planning in a new city. One night, Clara tells Ida that she has found a wealthy family who wants to adopt Christine, and that the family has paid Clara’s way to the reservation to bring Christine back. Ida is reluctant at first, but tells Clara she will agree to the plan if Clara gives her until the following Wednesday to say goodbye to Christine. The next Monday, Father Hurlburt comes over. Ida suddenly tells Clara she cannot take Christine. Clara objects, claiming ownership of her daughter, but Father Hurlburt produces a paper that lists Ida as the child’s legal mother. Clara is furious but powerless. She leaves that night. Ida sees Clara only twice more in her life.

Analysis: Chapter 18

When Ida’s relationship with Clara turns sour, it is Ida’s first experience with betrayal. Clara, whom Ida believes is her close friend, turns out to have been looking out only for herself. Clara thrives on the attention the nuns give her and shows little or no concern for Ida. Ida’s indignant attitude toward Clara now seems largely justified, but Dorris’s technique of eventually revealing why each character behaves the way she does makes it hard to pass judgment on Clara. In the same way that Rayona’s indignation toward Christine seems baseless once Christine has the chance to tell her story and Christine’s indignation toward Ida seems misplaced now that Ida is giving her viewpoint, we cannot help but wonder whether Clara might also be vindicated if she were given an opportunity to tell her story. It is difficult to exonerate Clara completely, however, because after Ida tells her story Dorris leaves no room for Clara to explain her own motives.

In this chapter Dorris illuminates the origins of several details that appear in Rayona and Christine’s narratives, and once they are explained we realize these details demonstrate Ida’s genuine affection for Christine. One such detail is Ida’s scar, a mysterious discolored mark on her face that Christine first notices the evening she expects the world to end. Ida does not notice the ladle burning her face because, as she is so deeply attached to Christine, any contact between Clara and Christine completely distracts her. Ida has previously tried to avoid or deny her affection for Christine by making Christine call her “Aunt Ida,” as if putting some distance in their family relationship would bring about emotional distance. However, as we see in the narratives of Christine and Rayona, Ida’s insistence on the title of “aunt” is only partly successful and even backfires. Ida’s command that Christine call her “aunt” does not prevent Ida from feeling like a mother to Christine, but because the burn mark and other signs of Ida’s love are difficult to interpret, Christine never understands that Ida genuinely loves her. Ironically, Ida openly shows signs of her love for her adopted daughter, but because these signs cannot be understood without knowing Ida’s story, Christine never realizes that her presumed mother does care for her.

Ida’s relationship with Father Hurlburt reveals that Ida is constantly plagued by the fear that the things and people she loves will be taken away from her. Her close connections to Christine and Father Hurlburt frighten her. The priest is the one person who truly treats Ida with respect, and because he is a party to Ida’s family secret he has the ability to at least partly understand what Ida is going through. Even so, Ida has the irrational fear that Father Hurlburt will stop visiting her if she lets him know how much she enjoys his company, and she even tries to push him away so she will not mind losing him. Such fears prevent Ida from forging any strong relationships, especially during the two and half years before Clara returns from Colorado, and they cause her to turn inward and avoid depending on anyone other than herself. After trusting Clara and her parents only to see them betray her, Ida now fears to show affection toward anyone.

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