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.