Chapter 20: Summary

In my house, Christ was always being born or rising from the dead.

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Unlike Christine, Lee is a very fussy child. Christine is glad to be Lee’s “little mother” and constantly takes care of him. Father Hurlburt becomes the head of the mission and becomes too busy to keep up his Thursday meetings with Ida. Instead, Ida begins to use Thursdays as time to spend with her children. The children naturally have questions about their identity, but Ida declines to give them any information. By this time, Willard Pretty Dog is married to one of the nurses who cared for him in the hospital. Every once in a while, Christine calls Ida “mother” to get on her nerves, but Ida never responds until Christine uses “Aunt Ida.” Ida speaks Indian to her children, but they use English with each other and while they watch television. Ida has no preferences for one child over the other, and each of them requires a different kind of attention.

Christine becomes very immersed in her Catholic faith. Her favorite saints are the ones that suffered bloody martyrdoms. Although Ida is worried, Pauline believes that Christine’s faith is unconscious reparation for the circumstances of her birth. Christine’s devout nature is a contrast to her daring side, which comes out when she is around other children, especially Lee. When Lee tells Ida some of the brave things that Christine has done, Ida tries to make Lee promise not to try to copy her. Lee is not nearly so bold; in fact, he is rather timid.

One day Christine comes home a quiet and changed girl, and Lee brags to Ida that Christine was scared and that he saved her. After this incident, Lee finds new confidence while Christine looks at the world with new apprehension. Christine constantly expresses fear that she is going to hell. Worried, Ida consults Father Hurlburt, who suspects that Christine’s anxiety may have something to do with a letter that people say the Virgin Mary herself gave to a young girl in Portugal. The letter is supposed to be opened at the turn of the New Year and is expected to tell one of two futures: either all of Russia will convert or the world will end. Father Hurlburt says the children in Christine’s class are taking the message too literally.

Ida tries to talk to Christine about the letter, but Christine is set in her faith. Ida humors her, making a list of her sins and promising to stay home on New Year’s Eve. Ida spends the alleged last day of the world with Christine. Lee says he is very skeptical about Christine’s faith, and Ida does not try to explain to him why Christine feels the need for mystery. That afternoon, Christine spends a lot of time trying to make Ida look nice, and when she is finished, Ida is impressed. Ida gazes into Christine’s mirror, astonished. The moment is ruined, however, by Lee’s mocking laugh. As she admits that nothing is going to happen, Christine tells Lee, “You win.”

At dinner, Lee, feeling his point has been made, tries to cheer up Christine. Lee decides he wants to stay up until midnight to prove Christine wrong. In response, Christine shuts herself up in her room and turns on the radio. Late that night, Father Hurlburt comes over to Ida’s, and he and Ida go out onto the roof. Father Hurlburt asks if Christine had a bad night, and Ida tells him that she did. In the dark, Ida begins to braid her hair.

Analysis: Chapter 20

Ida’s comment, early in this chapter, that “[i]n my house, Christ was always being born or rising from the dead” continues the idea of death and resurrection from earlier in the novel. Ida means this idea literally, describing a religious calendar she has just brought home, but the phrase also reflects the fact that A Yellow Raft in Blue Water is partly a story about how Rayona resurrects the spirit and values that had been denied the women in the generations before hers. Ida is disillusioned at the age of fifteen when Clara and her father betray her, and Christine experiences disillusionment at the same age when the world does not end as she expects it to. Rayona is also fifteen years old during her portion of the novel, and often feels betrayed or abandoned, but she does not enter this cycle of despair. After two generations of disillusionment, Rayona is the first woman to truly find her place within her family. Thus, Rayona represents another type of rebirth—that of the woman in her family.

The strange and complicated genealogy of Ida’s family reveals itself in the behavior of many members of her immediate family. Although Christine and Lee are raised as brother and sister, Christine acts like a member of an older generation, which, as Ida’s half-sister and cousin, she technically is. This difference can be seen in the way they behave—whereas Lee is childish and requires much attention, the young Christine is poised and confident. Even when they are older, Christine is mature enough to exercise some control over Lee’s life. Even though Christine and Lee live their lives under the incorrect assumption that they are brother and sister, they unconsciously act out the truth through their very different personalities and actions. Dorris places so much importance on personal background and family history that these elements affect the novel’s characters even when the characters are not aware of their histories.

Most of this final chapter is concerned with Christine’s loss of faith, which we have already seen through Christine’s point of view earlier in the novel. Of all the scenes in the novel that are told from multiple points of view, this is the scene with the least amount of misunderstanding. For once, Christine and Ida seem to be operating on the same wavelength. When Christine tries to make Ida look nice for the apocalypse, both women are impressed by how beautiful Ida looks afterward. When Lee shatters this moment of connection with his mocking laugh, both Ida and Christine are angry with him. Interestingly, each woman is indignant on the part of the other, as Christine thinks Ida’s feelings are hurt and Ida thinks Christine’s feelings are hurt. This mutual concern is rare in the context of the numerous misunderstandings in the novel, and shows how close Christine and Ida are at this moment.

Dorris ends the novel with a return to the image of braiding to give us a final, lingering image of how his fractured narrative structure leads to a whole. Like a braid, the novel takes three different strands of narrative and weaves them together to create an overarching story that is greater than the sum of the individual components. Each story contributes differently to the themes of the novel, but no single narrative operates independently of the others. Through the three different points of view, many aspects of the novel’s events, characters, and characters’ motivations are revealed that would remain hidden if the story were told from only one of these three perspectives. Thus, we have an opportunity to hear the whole story, something none of the characters in the novel has been able to do fully.