An Analysis of A Yellow Raft in Blue Water by Michael Dorris

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” This quotation from Thomas Edison is an excellent representation of the three narrators in Michael Dorris’ novel, A Yellow Raft in Blue Water. Ida, Rayona, and Christine have the most complicated lives, and yet they still fight for a better way of life. Through many unique and interesting techniques, Michael Dorris is able to create these three admirable women that portray the strength and unity of family in his novel.

In order to create them, he uses the narrators and their relationships to each other, history and media, and symbols. Dorris’ techniques defy the traditional belief that characterization is obtained by description or detail and goes a step further than them. All of these together create the three women, Rayona, Christine, and Ida, who, in turn, tell their part of the story and how their lives relate to the others.

symbols. Dorris’ technile narrators and their relation and unity of family in high

The relationship between the three narrators sets the foundation for the character development.

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Each of the characters has a sometimes strained, but always strong relationship with the others. Rayona’s relationship with Christine, her mother, is the opposite of what it should be. Rayona is more like the mother than Christine is and she often treats her mother better than she is treated. This is only one of the many ways that Rayona’s strong, down to earth personality is shown. It is ironic that she is named after Rayon, one of the toughest materials because her character is as “durable as the material” (Owens 359).

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Christine is the opposite of her daughter; she would rather be entertained than to work. Besides Christine’s childishness, she also has problems with her mother. At the beginning of her story, she describes herself as “the bastard daughter of a woman who wouldn’t even admit she was my mother” (Dorris 129). This quotation sums up her entire relationship with Ida, her mother. Throughout Christine’s story, Ida is constantly criticizing everything that Christine does, from the way she dresses to the way she raises Rayona. From this, Christine’s rebellious personality is developed and its similarity to Rayona’s experiences with her. Although Rayona and Christine’s personality traits are derived from their mothers, Ida’s comes from a very different life experience. At the beginning of her story, it begins with “I never grew up, but I got old” which leads into her whole life (Dorris 273). When she was young, her father impregnated her aunt, Clara, and they decided to say it was Ida’s baby and that she was raped. They used Ida as a scapegoat in order to protect the family name. This marked the beginning of her struggles, from motherhood to loneliness, and the development of her stubborn personality. Ida’s age and wisdom in the story help her to be the “main storyteller” because what she knows “affects the stories of the other two” (Owens 361). She has the power to change the other two’s stories by telling them what she knows and what she has dealt with. Although the character narration may seem to be a small part of the story, it “radically alters the entire experience of reading the novel” (Bennett 356). Each narrator portrays a different interpretation of the same event and their relationship with each other is instrumental in the depiction of these events. Overall, each character is “distinct” and “sharply drawn” but their true feelings about each other are never stated. Dorris does not use the narrators to express their feelings about each other, he instead uses them to describe the others and events involving them. The reader has to make many “interpretations” and “relate the lives of the characters” to his own life (Narveson 362). These interpretations of the characters are the way Dorris uses their relationships to show the uniqueness of the three; everyone will have a slightly different perception of the characters. Some may be able to relate more to Ida and her experiences, and then their own experiences and feelings would create a slightly different Ida. When Dorris plays off the other narrators in characterization, it leads to his other methods of characterization.

Historical and cultural events and objects are another way Dorris characterizes Rayona, Christine, and Ida. He indirectly discusses many different issues, such as, Indian alcoholism and Catholic influence on the reservation. Although history is not his concentration, he is able to bring “into focus some of the difficulties in contemporary Indian life” (Literature 360). These difficulties are apparent in each of the character’s lives, like Christine’s alcoholism and Rayona’s conflict with Father Tom. Robert Bennett believes the “complexity” of the narration helps the reader understand the “complexity of history itself” during the life of the characters (Bennett 359). The unnamed reservation is a background for the forces in history that shape these women, even though it is not a direct part of life on the reservation. The Catholic Church plays an important role; the missionary work that they did on reservations is discussed in Rayona’s story. Also, Father Tom is a representative of the missionary work that priests often did on reservations, like when he makes a point to reach out to Rayona, even though he had an ulterior motive. The church also effects Ida and Christine’s relationship. Aunt Ida’s devotion to the church and how she makes a point to go to church every Sunday morning and Christine’s rejection of the church and its ideas create a conflict. This is only one of the many cultural differences between the two women. Often these cultural differences are where the main struggles of the women come from. Christine’s marriage to Elgin upsets her mother because Elgin is black and in turn, Rayona’s relationship with Ida is strained because she is a reminder of what Christine did to Ida. In addition, Rayona has to deal with being part black and part Indian which effects many of her relationships. Media is another cultural part that is important to characterization. It provides an escape route for the women throughout the story. They refer to the movies many times and sometimes they describe what they see as if they are watching a movie. For example, when Rayona watches Christine and Ida meet each other again, she describes it as if she is “seeing this scene on an old movie and a commercial could come up any minute” (Dorris 28). This is only one example of how the women constantly refer to movies and television as a way of showing their constantly shifting sense of reality. According to Louis Owens, the reason the women refer to movies is that they need something to take their minds off their lives, even if it is for a minute. However, to the reader, it intensifies how terrible the women’s lives are. The only security Christine is able to offer Rayona is a lifetime membership at Village Video, which is apparent when she says “It’s like something I’d leave you” (Dorris 20). This is also seen in Ida’s life, it revolves around what time her soap operas come on and what is going on in the plot. Media and history work together to highlight character traits in the women and to explain why they behave in certain ways.

In order to get the complete picture of the three women, Dorris uses multiple symbols that represent different aspects of each of the women’s lives. Throughout the book, there are many symbols, but three in particular plays an important role. When Dorris describes the Bearpaw Lake, he describes it as “blue water in a bowl being held by mountains that rise gray” with a wooden raft, painted yellow, floating in the middle (Dorris 54). All of the colors found around the lake are very naturalistic, and when something natural, like the wooden raft, is not in its natural state, the entire meaning of that object is changed. The natural qualities of the raft are tainted by the unnatural bright yellow paint. The paint shows how the raft symbolizes the once beautiful lives of the women that were tarnished and their true beauty covered. Although the raft represents their lives, to each of the women, the raft represents something different. To Ida, it is a symbol of her youth that was quickly “painted over” by her father and how she lost many things, like the experience of growing up, because of it. To Christine, it shows her materialism and her need to always have nice clothes and beautiful hair no matter how poor she is. In contrast to the other two, it means something much different to Rayona. To her, it is a representation of how she wants to have a better life and how she is looking for something stable to rely on for strength. For all of the characters, the yellow raft represents peace and a place of comfort and the blue water it is on represents what they have to overcome in order to get to the raft. The raft also represents family, and how other people will “fade away into the blue”, and the raft will provide “meaning for their lives” (Masterplots). The symbols bring out many qualities in the women, but none is greater than the love that they have for each other. When Ida braids her hair at the end of the story, she describes it as “twisting and tying and blending” which shows how the love between the women works (Dorris 343). Each of them are different “strands”, but they still belong to the same “braid” and the “rhythm of the three strands” shows how each of their lives work together to create the story (Dorris 343). According to Robert Narveson, Ida’s hair braiding goes beyond the characters, and it “braids” together the “geographical, cultural and biological elements of the story” in order to strengthen Dorris’ depiction of the women (Narveson 363).

A Yellow Raft in Blue Water is a novel that uses three strong women and their experiences to show how family love will always survive. Each of the three women is independent of each other and yet is closely related by her stories. Michael Dorris uses character relationships, culture, and symbols to create these women. Overall, he defies the stereotypes of characterization and their relationships by using unique and interesting techniques to create extraordinary characters.

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An Analysis of A Yellow Raft in Blue Water by Michael Dorris. (2022, Apr 06). Retrieved from

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