A Yellow Raft in Blue Water
Summary: Chapter 4
Rayona decides that she wants to leave the reservation. She takes a day off from school to plan out exactly what she is going to do. Before the day is even half over, however, Father Tom shows up at Rayona’s house. She tells Father Tom she is planning to leave, and though he humors her at first, Rayona quickly recognizes he will try to change her mind. She decides it will be easier if she just goes to school. Father Tom invites her to an event called the Teens for Christ Jamboree, and Rayona decides to go, if only as a way of getting off of the reservation. The day they leave, Father Tom brings Rayona by Aunt Ida’s house to pack. Aunt Ida is not there, but Rayona can tell that Christine has stopped by recently because a package that had arrived for Christine is gone, along with some things from her room. Feeling even more rejected by her mother, Rayona packs all her belongings in a plastic bag. She also takes the tapes from Village Video.
On the way to the jamboree, Father Tom asks Rayona about her family. She claims that her mother is dead and that her father is a pilot. Father Tom says that he never had a father either. Rayona points out that she does in fact have a father and asks Father Tom why he joined the priesthood. He says it was because he heard his calling to be “God’s helper.” Rayona falls asleep as they ride late into the night.
When Rayona wakes, they are at the same gas station where she and her mother stopped on their way to the reservation. Father Tom explains that they are a day early to the jamboree and that they will have a chance to relax. They get to a campsite at Bearpaw Lake State Park and sit down for a picnic. Father Tom cannot get the grill started, so he suggests they go for a swim instead. When they arrive at the lake, Father Tom decides the water is too cold, but Rayona sees some people swimming out beyond a yellow raft and jumps in. When she reaches the raft, Father Tom jumps in after her, but cramps up before he can reach her. Rayona jumps back into the water and saves him. After Rayona drags Father Tom onto the dock, he draws her close to him. They embrace, Father Tom “duck[s] his head,” and his “hips jerk against” Rayona. Then Father Tom pulls away and says that they have experienced “an occasion of sin.”
Father Tom tells Rayona that they have to go back to the reservation and that they never should have left. He says that Rayona needs to find friends her own age and that people who see the two of them together constantly might misunderstand their relationship. Rayona says she is going back to Seattle, and Tom seems to like the idea. He gives Rayona money, finds out about a train for her, and tells her that he will let Aunt Ida know where she went. That night Father Tom drives Rayona to the train and gives her his touristy bead necklace, saying they will meet again and that she will be in his prayers. After Father Tom leaves, Rayona does not get on the train and throws the necklace onto the tracks. She sits down to think and wait out the night, “happy for no reason.”
Analysis: Chapter 4
In this chapter, Rayona breaks away from her old life of ostracism, and we see her severing the ties that bind her to the reservation one by one. Rayona keeps a close eye on the package addressed to Christine, and when the package disappears, it ruins Rayona’s last hope that Christine will eventually return for her. The package’s disappearance becomes the final evidence for Rayona that her mother has abandoned her, and when she decides that her mother truly does not want to have anything to do with her, a vital tie to her old life is broken. Instead, on the drive to the jamboree, Rayona begins to invent a new life for herself, one in which her mother is dead and her father pilots jets. Rayona’s fabrication of Christine’s death is symbolic of the new detachment of daughter from mother. The fact that Rayona says Christine is dead also shows that Rayona has a very real anger toward her mother for having abandoned her.
The yellow raft in Bearpaw Lake is the raft of the novel’s title, and it becomes a symbol of the time and place where Rayona breaks her final ties to her old life at the reservation. The raft becomes the launching point for Rayona’s thoughts about the future, and Dorris revisits this image twice more when he relates Rayona’s travels and dreams of a new life.
Rayona’s encounter with Father Tom at Bearpaw Lake spoils their relationship. After the incident, Father Tom becomes nervous and appears to want to rid himself of Rayona, reversing his earlier lectures on why she should remain on the reservation. Instead of being hurt by Father Tom’s eagerness to see her go, Rayona is glad, as the encounter with Father Tom has made her disillusioned with him and strengthened her resolve to go back to Seattle. Rayona does not leave for Seattle, however, and eventually decides to stay near the lake. She has broken free of virtually all association with her former life, as no one from her old life knows where she is. Now that she has gained this emotional distance from her old life, she no longer feels the need to create a physical distance from it.
Sitting by the train tracks, Rayona claims to be “happy for no reason,” but the reason for her happiness is more evident to us than it is to her. Now that Rayona has severed all ties to the life she has known for fifteen years, she is free to live, or imagine the life she wants to create, and her happiness comes from this freedom. Even though her ideal life is vague and has no outline or plan, she has still escaped into a new world in which she has control of her future and can create her own life.
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