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A Yellow Raft in Blue Water

Michael Dorris

Chapter 19

Chapter 18

Chapter 20

Summary: Chapter 19

Ida’s mother dies. Lecon runs off a month later and Pauline marries Dale Cree. Ida leases her land and installs electricity and plumbing in her house. Around this time, Willard Pretty Dog returns from the war. Willard Pretty Dog was once the most attractive boy on the reservation, and was conceited and vain about his appearance. During the war, however, he stumbled on a land mine in Italy, and is now rumored to be hideously deformed. Willard has even gone so far as to paint the windows of his car so no one can see him as he makes his frequent trips to the hospital. Ida asks Father Hurlburt about Willard, and he says Ida should pay Willard a visit. Willard is so ashamed of his appearance that Father Hurlburt knows he will never see anyone at his house, but thinks he might be able to persuade Willard to stop by Ida’s on the way back from the hospital.

Father Hurlburt says he will stop by with Willard the next Thursday. The night before, Ida turns on her radio and takes a relaxing bath. The day of Willard’s visit, Ida has Pauline take her to the store, where she spends an excessive amount of money on groceries. Ida prepares dinner and puts Christine to bed. When Father Hurlburt arrives, Ida can hear him trying to coax Willard from the car. Ida goes outside and without even looking at Willard drags him inside her house. Once there, Willard settles down slightly. Father Hurlburt leaves and Ida tells Willard he looks better than she had expected him to. Willard disdainfully asks what Ida knows about anything, so Ida tells him her whole story. That night they go to bed together.

Willard begins to live with Ida. Pauline wonders what other people will think about Ida and Willard’s relationship. Ida denies she is sleeping with Willard, even though she clearly is. Father Hurlburt does not condemn Ida when he makes his next weekly visit, and Willard joins in on their customary conversation. Three months later, Willard’s mother stops by Ida’s house and says that she has heard unconfirmed rumors about her son and Ida. Mrs. Pretty Dog acts as if Ida is Willard’s nurse, although it is clear she understands that Ida and Willard are romantically involved.

Willard goes back to the hospital for more reconstructive surgery. While Willard is away, Father Hurlburt stops by Ida’s house to tell her that Lecon is dead. Soon afterward, Ida realizes she is pregnant. Although she embraces the idea of being pregnant, she keeps it secret and plans to use the news to boost Willard’s happiness if the operation goes well, or to console him if it does not. Ida rides with Father Hurlburt and Mrs. Pretty Dog to the hospital. When the doctor removes Willard’s bandages, everyone is surprised to see that he is nearly as handsome as he was in high school. Mrs. Pretty Dog assumes that Willard will no longer need his “nurse,” but Willard says he will be going back to Ida’s anyway, and that it is time his mother understood that Ida is more than his nurse. Mrs. Pretty Dog argues that Willard can have any girl he wants now. Willard remains firm, saying that even though Ida may not be beautiful or smart, he wants to stay with her because she stood by him. When Ida hears Willard’s words, however, she does not appreciate the less than flattering portrait he paints of her. By the time Willard is finished, Ida no longer wants him, and refuses the charity of his presence.

When people begin to imply that Willard must be the father of Ida’s yet unborn child, Ida sarcastically implies how unlikely that would be. She never denies it outright, nor does she deny any other speculations as to the identity of her child’s father. The only denial Ida makes comes when Pauline asks if Father Hurlburt is the child’s father. Ida still associates with Willard, but she no longer feigns ignorance or stupidity. She wants to show Christine that it is all right to act strong in front of a man. When Ida tells Christine about the baby, Christine wants to know what its name will be. Pauline wants Ida to name the child after their parents, but Ida does not like that idea. However, when the baby—a boy—is born, Ida does name him Lecon, which she then abbreviates to Lee. From the day of his birth, everyone can tell that Lee is a beautiful child.

Analysis: Chapter 19

Ida tells her story to Willard Pretty Dog but alters it. This alteration strips Ida’s confession of the therapeutic effect Rayona feels when she confesses to Evelyn. In speaking with Evelyn, Rayona takes a step into real life for the first time in months. Afterward, Rayona no longer has the weight of a lie upon her, and thus feels relieved. Ida, however, tells her story to Willard because she wants to prove to him that she knows about suffering, and that his exaggerated self-pity is unmerited. In order to do so, Ida needs to show Willard that they have some common ground, so in her story she constructs an image of herself to please Willard. Though Ida’s suffering has been real, she adds to her facade several attributes that are not true to her personality and pretends to be stupid and ignorant in an attempt to massage Willard’s ego. Unlike Rayona’s confession, therefore, Ida’s talk with Willard actually takes her a step further into a life controlled by others.

It is only after Ida realizes she no longer wants Willard and is no longer concerned with pleasing him that she begins to act like her real self again. Ida’s self-assertiveness is one of her lasting legacies to her family. After debasing herself to please Willard, Ida becomes determined to show Christine that it is acceptable to be smart when men are around. Both Christine and Rayona adapt Ida’s advice and refuse to act stupid to please anyone. In fact, it is Christine’s and Rayona’s fiercely independent streaks that get them into trouble more often than anything else.

The people Ida is closest to react in varied ways to her affair with Willard, and their reactions are often the opposite of what we might expect. Pauline is judgmental and worries about what other people will think; it appears that some of Lecon’s fixation on appearances has rubbed off on Pauline. Father Hurlburt, on the other hand, does not judge Ida when he learns that Willard has been living with her. Since both Pauline and Father Hurlburt are strongly connected to the church, we expect them to hold similar positions on Ida’s life, but they actually hold almost contradictory opinions. Both see pros and cons in Ida’s relationship with Willard, but Pauline is more concerned with the relationship’s appearance of impropriety, whereas Father Hurlburt sees the positive effect of the relationship on Ida’s well being. Father Hurlburt knows Ida and understands her, and he recognizes how badly she needs companionship. Although we expect Father Hurlburt to take a very moralizing stance, his sense of friendship allows him to set aside religious dogma and rules when he realizes Ida’s relationship is doing her good.

Ida learns she is pregnant immediately after learning of Lecon’s death, which can be read as a sign of the end of one era and the beginning of another. We have already seen this coincidence with Rayona’s birth, which occurs the same day Christine learns that Lee has been killed in Vietnam. Indeed, throughout the novel we see this pattern of life following death. Lecon’s death is a symbolic end to Ida’s parents’ generation and releases Ida from the confines of secrecy that her family has imposed on her. Likewise, Lee’s birth represents the advent of a new generation and of a new set of responsibilities for Ida. With Lecon’s death, Ida no longer has to take care of her family and their secrets, but in place she takes on the role of a real mother. The past proves resilient, however, and some traces of it remain even after Lecon is laid to rest. For example, even though she makes every effort to escape the past, Ida names her son Lecon. The name becomes “Lee,” but the fact that Clara can persuade Ida, against her better judgment, to name her son after her father reveals the extent to which the past still has a hold on her.

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