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Michael Dorris was born in
Louisville, Kentucky, in 1945. His heritage
was mixed, as he was descended from European ancestry and from the Native
American Modoc Tribe of California. Dorris spent his childhood in
Kentucky but made frequent visits to reservations in the Pacific
Later in life Dorris noted that, as a child, he never
encountered Native American literary characters with whom he could
identify. So after graduating cum laude from Georgetown University
and earning a master’s degree at Yale University, Dorris began writing, hoping
to create such characters himself. He was a prolific author, publishing
fourteen books and over one hundred articles between 1977 and
his death in 1997. A Yellow Raft
in Blue Water, published in 1987,
was Dorris’s first novel. During his writing career, Dorris remained
heavily involved in academia, starting the Native American Studies
program at Dartmouth College, where he taught intermittently for
twenty-five years. At Dartmouth, Dorris also met his future wife
and literary partner, the novelist Louise Erdrich. She too is of
Native American descent, a member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa
Tribe of the Midwest.
Dorris and Erdrich had three children together, who joined
the three children whom Dorris had adopted prior to his marriage.
Dorris’s adopted children, who were born on Native American reservations,
all suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome, a variable group of birth
defects that can occur in the children of women who consume large
quantities of alcohol during pregnancy. One of Dorris’s best-known
works, The Broken Cord (1989),
is based on the troubles and triumphs he experienced in dealing
with fetal alcohol syndrome in the older of his two adopted sons,
Although the press frequently idealized Dorris’s relationship with
Erdrich as a literary marriage of the highest sort, the two gradually
grew apart and separated. The rest of Dorris’s personal life began
to splinter as well: in 1991 Abel was killed
in a hit-and-run accident, and in 1994 another
of his adopted children, Jeffrey, accused both Dorris and Erdrich
of abuse and brought a lawsuit against them. Dorris and Erdrich
also began to bump heads over custody of their natural children.
With his personal life already under considerable scrutiny, Dorris
faced increased pressure as accusations that he had sexually abused
a child leaked to the press in December of 1996.
Formal charges were never brought against Dorris, but he began to
suffer from severe depression from the thought that they might be.
Apparently fearful of the prospect of a feeding frenzy by law enforcement
officials and the media, Dorris killed himself in a motel room in
Concord, New Hampshire, on April 10, 1997.
Although his tumultuous personal life and tragically
short career have at times threatened to overshadow his literary
accomplishments, critics acknowledge Dorris as a highly original
voice in modern Native American literature, the peer of other prominent
writers such as N. Scott Momaday, Sherman Alexie, and Leslie Marmon Silko.
Ace your assignments with our guide to A Yellow Raft in Blue Water!