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A Yellow Raft in Blue Water

Michael Dorris

Study Questions & Essay Topics

Key Facts

Quiz

Study Questions

1.

A Yellow Raft in Blue Water consists of three distinct narratives. What effect does this structure have? Why does Dorris choose to present certain scenes in more than one narrative?

It is important to observe that the three stories in A Yellow Raft in Blue Water are all a part of a larger story. The tales of Rayona, Christine, and Ida all intermingle as the novel progresses, and each story supports and completes the others. This structure forces us to take a more active part in our reading, and we play the part of detective, slowly gathering information about the characters and their lives. What is crucial here is not just that one narrator describes events that the others may not, but that the different narrators provide explanations for the strange behavior and events we see at earlier points in the novel. Each character’s story seems like the whole story as we read it, but the subjectivity of that particular character’s narrative becomes apparent when we read what the other narrators have to say.

This effect is especially strong when different characters produce their own descriptions of the same event or scene. We learn a lot about the characters by examining what details they choose to focus on and how they interpret them. At times, Ida, Christine, and Rayona make the same event seem like three different events, which reveals that their stories are shaped more deeply by their personalities than by actual occurrences. Therefore, by telling the story through three different narrators, Dorris allows us to come up with our own opinion of the novel’s events and characters and to avoid being swayed by the words of only one narrator.

2.

The main characters of A Yellow Raft in Blue Water are all looking for a place to belong. How do Rayona’s travels affect her and what conclusions does she come up with?

Each character assumes different identities over the course of the novel, and their journeys allow them to discover which of these identities, if any, will work out for them in the end. Rayona is a particularly good example of how the characters discover themselves on their journeys. Rayona often laments the fact that she does not fit in, has no natural place to call home, and is an outsider everywhere she goes, mostly because of her dark skin and her abnormal height and lankiness. She creates an imaginary identity to help her better relate to others and to boost her self-esteem. When reality intrudes on her imaginary world, however, Rayona finally finds herself placed in the real world and earns the admiration of her peers with her bravery at the rodeo. Having gained some respect, Rayona makes peace with Christine and is finally able to establish a rapport with her that makes Rayona realize how precious her family really is.

Before she comes to these conclusions, however, Rayona’s search for a place to belong leads her to try on all sorts of false identities, and she tries to make herself as average as she can and conform to the standards of whatever group she wants to join. While at Bearpaw Lake State Park, Rayona tries to look like Ellen, while on the reservation she wishes she looked like Annabelle. Rayona also changes more than her physical appearance and joins a religious group to fit in, even though she is not especially impressed with Father Tom’s ecclesiastical jargon. As these different identities disappoint her, however, Rayona comes closer to discovering who she really is. While Rayona’s travels are filled with pain and disappointment, they allow her to dispense with her fantasies about more traditional families and lifestyles and grow comfortable with her own family.

3.

In the novel, the events of the past affect the lives of characters who are too young to know these events have occurred. In what ways do these family secrets affect the different characters of the novel? Are these effects lessened or amplified by the fact that they are kept secret?

Most of the novel’s secrets originate with Ida and her decision to pose as Christine’s mother. Having to keep so many secrets is a burden for Ida and makes her turn inward and become reluctant to trust others, but the fact that she never acknowledges this turbulent period does not make its effects vanish. The secrets born in Ida’s early life create many of the conditions that pervade the lives of future generations. For example, Ida initially makes Christine call her “Aunt Ida” because she knows Christine’s real mother will eventually come home and she does not want Christine and herself to become too attached to each other. However, this title eventually becomes permanent and Christine takes it as a sign of Ida’s embarrassment over her. Later, the title “Aunt Ida” is also imposed on Rayona and has the same alienating effect. Because Ida is so close-mouthed about the genealogy of her family, Christine is essentially fatherless, has no ancestors of whom she is aware, and consequently has trouble understanding their identities. To compensate, Christine has to try on a number of identities, which causes her a great deal of pain and disappointment. This identity crisis is likewise passed on to Rayona, who, like her mother, spends a lot of time drifting without really knowing where she fits in. In this sense, then, the hidden secrets of Ida’s time continue to haunt her adopted daughter and granddaughter.

Suggested Essay Topics

1. Dorris uses the images of water and rain frequently in his text. Discuss the significance of these images with relation to the themes and structure of the novel.

2. Religion plays a major role in the novel and appears in a variety of different ways. Discuss the various appearances of religion and its significance to the text. What is the difference between Father Hurlburt and Father Tom? Do characters have to be affiliated with the church to be religious?

3. Each narrator makes references to the popular culture of her time. What is the effect of such references within the novel? Be sure to consider elements of culture that are not necessarily linked to a specific era or point in time.

4. By presenting three different narratives in his novel, Dorris highlights the fact that all stories are inherently subjective. In what ways does this subjectivity come across in each of these narratives? Is the narrator conscious of it? Is there a definite right or wrong viewpoint in this novel?

5. How do Christine and Rayona use images of planes and flying in their narratives? What is the significance of these images? Do such images come up in Ida’s story?

6. Discuss the role of escapism in A Yellow Raft in Blue Water. How does each character escape his or her reality? What is the result?

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