Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Misunderstandings between characters occur throughout the novel, and Dorris puts us in the unusual position of being able to see both sides of some arguments. There are three different but overlapping story lines with three different narrators who occasionally report the same event from differing points of view. These multiple narrators demonstrate how three characters who should be very close to one another can misunderstand each other, at times dramatically. As the novel opens, for example, Rayona is at the hospital visiting Christine, whose actions seem melodramatic, irresponsible, and irrational. However, when this scene is revisited in Christine’s story, we learn that Christine has just found out she has less than six months to live, and she wounded by the lack of sympathy from both her daughter and her ex-husband.
Likewise, though Ida comes off as rather cold and resentful to others—she herself admits this is an apt description—her personal life at least makes her temperament seem forgivable or understandable. If Christine and Rayona knew Ida’s history, they would understand that her coldness is her reaction to the treatment she has received throughout her life. Dorris presents the defining events of his characters’ lives, the ones that shape who they are and how they react to the world. In the cases of Christine and Ida, such events often remain secret and inspire negative reactions from the novel’s other characters. Only when we are given access to a character’s life and thoughts can we hope to understand that character’s actions.
In the end, A Yellow Raft in Blue Water favors family as a means of support, but the novel also questions how the problems of one generation can be passed to the next. Ida, Christine, and Rayona each represent a different generation of the same family, and each generation resonates with the lives of those who came before. The secrets that characterize Ida’s life create a number of misunderstandings between the three women. Neither Rayona nor Christine can understand the events that influence them, and a great deal of confusion and misunderstanding grows between mother and daughter. The events surrounding Christine’s birth and adoption by Ida resonate throughout the novel. Ida is the only person to witness these events, but they are so powerful that they affect the way she raises Christine, who in turn passes their effect on to Rayona.
Finding one’s place is a crucial element of growing up, and since growing up is a part of each of the novel’s three stories, each of the three chief characters struggles to belong. Ida never really has the opportunity to find her place or assert herself, and she quickly gives up any hope of successfully battling the currents that drive her life. Ida tries to come to peace with the path her life has taken but she remains resentful. Christine, on the other hand, has many opportunities that Ida lacks, and she takes full advantage of them. Christine tries on a number of identities, looking for one that fits: she tries first to be daring, then religious, then social and even somewhat promiscuous. None of these identities fulfills Christine, however, so she looks for herself in other people. She finds comfort in being Lee’s sister, and then Elgin’s husband, but the comfort does not last. Only when Rayona is born does Christine find her true place. She feels that Rayona gives her life meaning, and though she continues to live her wild life, she knows that, in the end, whatever she does must be for Rayona.
Rayona’s identity is more precarious than her mother’s. Although Rayona knows the identities of her parents, Elgin is largely absent and Christine is not exactly motherly. Rayona longs for a place in a family, so she clings to the love expressed in the letter she finds at Bearpaw Lake instead of looking to something that is actually part of her life. Rayona also struggles with her racial and physical identity, as she is of mixed race and gangly appearance. She is an outsider in almost every way and indulges in escapism. Once Rayona discards Ellen’s letter, however, we see that she finally comes to feel comfortable with her mother and her own identity. For Rayona, an integral part of finding her identity is trying on a fictitious one and realizing that even the dreamiest circumstances she can imagine do not make her hurt less. Rayona’s journey is ultimately less about figuring out who she is than it is about reconciling herself to her identity.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
References to popular culture appear consistently throughout the novel and help to color the eras and places that the three protagonists describe. Ida, Christine, and Rayona all listen to music and talk about the songs they hear. Christine invests significance in her two rented videos, Ida watches soap operas every day, and Rayona refers to brands of soft drinks. Ida, Christine, and Rayona are all products of the time period in which they grow up, and having a real grasp of when and where they live helps us understand the characters themselves. Lee’s death, for instance, a traumatic event for both Ida and Christine, would never have occurred if not for the Vietnam War. These references to popular culture thus help situate the story and characters, which is especially important in a novel that presents forty-two years of time in a non-linear fashion.
Faith is one of the more elusive elements of the novel, but it is an issue that each of the protagonists confronts. Rayona, Christine, and Ida have very different experiences with faith and the church. Rayona, abandoned by her parents and ignored by Ida, turns to the church for security. In her relationship with Father Tom, it appears as if Rayona has found someone who cares about her and whom she can trust. However, the basis for this trust turns out to be illusory, and in the end Rayona finds the security she needs only with her mother. Ida, on the other hand, does find a meaningful relationship, and the closest thing she has to a mutual understanding, in her relationship with Father Hurlburt. In contrast to the somewhat devious Father Tom, Father Hurlburt is one of the few people who shares Ida’s secrets. At times Father Hurlburt seems to be the only person who thinks Ida is worth being around. Ida has not lived a perfect life by Christian standards, something that her sister, Pauline, is sure to point out. Father Hurlburt, however, never judges Ida, and he is able to look past religious dogma and become her close friend. Finally, Christine’s religious faith wavers over the course of her life. She shows a strong capacity for faith in her early life, but when a critical element of her faith is proven wrong, Christine completely turns her back on religion.
Most of the religious figures in the novel are portrayed as malicious, absurd, or a combination of both. Though resentment toward the presence of the Holy Martyrs Mission on the reservation is obvious from the very beginning of the novel, a feeling lingers that faith is good and helpful for whomever it touches. For Rayona, Ida, and Christine, faith is sometimes vague or obscured, even warped and dangerous, yet it can support them when they least expect it.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
When Christine rents Christine and Little Big Man at Village Video, she describes the movies as Rayona’s inheritance, but they come to stand as more than just physical gifts. Christine chooses the videos specifically because they are films that show the kind of tough determination that Christine hopes Rayona sees in her. When Christine is gone, the movies remind Rayona of her and become surrogates for her physical presence. When Christine, Rayona, Ida, and Dayton watch the films together, they create a final memory of unity and come to stand for family harmony as well. Christine picks the movies with ambitious goals, yet they exceed even her expectations and shape the legacy they are supposed to symbolize.
Rayona finds a torn letter on the ground while she is doing custodial work at Bearpaw Lake State Park. The letter becomes Rayona’s symbol of the perfect family. In fact, the piece of paper Rayona finds is just a fragment that does not say too much, but the basic ideas it includes—having parents on good enough terms that they will sign a letter together—are so foreign to Rayona that she magnifies them into the rosiest portrait imaginable. Only when Rayona has breakfast with her mother at a diner several weeks later does she throw the letter away, a gesture that indicates that Rayona has finally found peace with her real family.
References to braids are made subtly throughout A Yellow Raft In Blue Water, and they become a symbol of how the lives of different family members, like the different parts of the story, can overlap and form a more complete whole. The most prominent of these references is the one that ends the novel, when Father Hurlburt and Ida go up to her roof on the night that the world is supposed to end and she starts braiding her hair in the darkness. Dorris ends the novel with this image because it is an apt symbol for the novel itself. The stories told by Rayona, Christine, and Ida are all part of a greater story, and this story can be told in full only if their narratives are looked at together. Therefore, Dorris uses the image of the braid—three strands of hair that are woven together, pulled one over the other and merged—to illustrate further how his novel and the lives of its characters overlap and complement each other.