A Yellow Raft in Blue Water

by Michael Dorris

Paperback, 1988

Call number




Warner Books (1988), 372 pages


Moving backward in time, Dorris's critically acclaimed debut novel is a lyrical saga of three generations of Native American women beset by hardship and torn by angry secrets.

User reviews

LibraryThing member whitewavedarling
I had mixed reactions to this one. In the early portion of the book, I was really engaged in the first voice Dorris takes on, but before I got very far along I was already beginning to be bored. Toward the end, my interest picked up on some level...but while the work as a whole was masterfully written, and the characters well-drawn, it was also fairly predictable.

The structure of the book felt more like a gimmick than a necessity, and added to the predictability. Early on, though, it felt like Dorris was overdoing a fairly simple (and sentimental) theme, and that the entire work was simply meant to reinforce the strength of familial love and the fact that we don't truly know one another. The novel, though, was hurt by Dorris' focus on structure and on three fairly similar characters, all of whom are hindered by secrets.

By the end of the book, simply enough, I wasn't sorry to have read it, but I was very glad to be done with it. Having felt it was predictable and overly sentimental, I also felt that it celebrated three women as strong and admirable women (in some ways, at least), when I found them less than likable, and simply didn't see the strength of character that was, apparently, supposed to shine through. More than anything, I felt they were all overly sentimental and locked into the past, even though I believe Dorris meant to imply a progression of strength and love over time.

So, yes: lovely writing, lovely characterizations, entertaining moments.... Not such an entertaining or worthwhile story, for this reader at least.
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LibraryThing member maryreinert
Three women connected as mothers and daughters but each with tremendous burdens to bear and pass along. Although the stories are not beautiful, the writing in this book is exceptionally beautiful -- simple, direct, vivid, and tender. The author definitely knows how to bring the reader into the shoes of the characters. At times as I was reading, I could simply forget where I was and was astonished when I looked up to find myself in my own living room.

If you are at all interested in family relationships, this is a book to explore. It is a testament of how the slightest things can become so forceful in our own lives and then silently creep into the lives of our children.
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LibraryThing member laytonwoman3rd
A Yellow Raft in Blue Water brings us the lives of three Indian women, a daughter, a mother and a grandmother, in their respective first person narrative voices. We meet Rayona first; she is fifteen years old, and her life is not easy. She and her mother live in Seattle, but Mom is often "sick" and in the hospital. We are not told (as Rayona is not told) what is wrong with her. Rayona's father is a black man who moves in and out of her life, contributing very little to it other than the effects of his DNA on her appearance. When Rayona's mother Christine decides they must return to the reservation to live with HER mother, no reason is given for that either. In Christine's section of the novel, we hear her tell her story, going back to her own teen years. We learn of her bond with her younger brother Lee and his best friend, Dayton; and of the dynamic attraction that drew her to Elgin Taylor and brought her Rayona. Finally, we hear from Christine's mother, who has always insisted that her children call her "Aunt Ida", because she was not married when they were born and therefore isn't entitled to be called "Mother". As each section unfolds, we learn things that the previous narrator did not tell us, because she did not KNOW. Secrets are at the heart of each woman's life; sometimes they are revealed to the characters, but more often only we, the readers are let in on all the truths, all the motivations, all the heartbreaks. This is an incredible novel, and I highly recommend it.… (more)
LibraryThing member mirrani
This is a story told through three generations of women from the same family, only instead of beginning with the grandmother, it begins with the granddaughter and works backwards. This may sound like an unusual and unfriendly way to tell the history of a family but it actually helps you to feel the emotions of the characters and understand their actions so much more. What starts out as unbelievable behavior ends up being explained in the end and you realize just how much love the family has for each other, even if it doesn't seem to be that they show it at all. It's often said that we are made up of our own experiences, but this is a book that proves that part of us is made up of the things others before us have experienced.

I found it interesting that for each section of the book the writing was slightly different. This makes sense, as the story is told from each character's point of view, but the attention to detail in wording and language really hit home throughout, especially at the end of the book, when Ida tells her story. She doesn't speak English, but her native "Indian", which is a more eloquent and descriptive language than English and the writing demonstrates this beautifully.

There wasn't much of a conclusion to the book, or even a real conclusion to each person's story, but I'm not certain that there really needed to be. Readers are taken to a point where their part of the character's story has been wrapped up and packaged in a set of chapters and bringing each section to an actual conclusion, either by the death of the character or some other event would only prolong the story, rather than bring it to a stopping point. I hadn't realized this at the time that I was reading and found the lack of a definite finish line somewhat unsettling, but as the story eased into me completely, I found myself quite satisfied.

Yellow Raft in Blue Water is a heartwarming journey, written very well, and almost certainly guaranteed to pull the reader in as it reminds them how important family can truly be, even when the traditional idea of family is far from what you have to work with.
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LibraryThing member gabriel77
This book is about 3 generations of indian women who each have a dramatic influence on each other. I wasnt sure I would like it,but it drew me in with all the secrets the past holds. Definitely a must read.
LibraryThing member sdjurek17
This was a really great book and I probably should have read it a long time ago. My favorite thing about the book is that each section is told from a different perspective, which I really like. Especially in this story it was important to be able to see things from different perspecitves- things aren't always how they seem.
LibraryThing member tracyjayhawk
A fantastic novel with multiple layers of literary elements. The braiding motif is the foremost of these, and Dorris masterfully weaves the lesser elements of the story within that motif. A great inter-generational story.
LibraryThing member readaholic12
I felt a sense of place, I related to the characters, I marvelled at the construction and the revelations of this story that peeled back its layers like an onion. You read the story from the perspective of the granddaughter, then see the truth through the eyes of her mother, and ultimately the grandmother. The structure of this novel left me on constantly shifting ground, reassessing my assumptions about the truth of each characters' experience and I was mesmerized and moved deeply by this novel.… (more)
LibraryThing member MarysGirl
A good read. I'm always surprised when male writers get female characters so right. The structure is fascinating, starting with the granddaughter's POV in the "present" (which is the mid-1980's when the book was first published) we learn about her mother and grandmother in both real time interactions and "family stories" told by those women to Rayona. The second time through we get the mother's POV, with much more detail on Christine's life as a child and relationship with her mother Ida, as well as insight into the actions that are bewildering to Rayona. The third section is from the grandmother's POV and reveals the secrets that set the stage for three generations of dysfunctional relationships among the women.… (more)
LibraryThing member crunky
A Yellow Raft in Blue Water tells the story of three generations of women whose roots stem from a Montana reservation. I enjoyed the structure Michael Dorris employed for this: each woman tells her story in the first person, in her own section, and we move from the youngest to the eldest. I suppose Dorris could have rotated narrators—it would still have fit with the braiding metaphor he uses in the first and final paragraphs of the book—but sticking with each character and giving each woman her own defined arc was the proper choice. Although the (sometimes hidden) contexts of our lives certainly reflect “twisting and tying and blending,” it seems appropriate to reflect the corresponding internal lives with coherent narratives of experience.

The first section of the book, Rayona’s, reads like a fairly typical coming-of-age story. Rayona deals with something of a breakdown by her mother and is essentially abandoned at a distant relative’s house (“distant” also in that her relative doesn’t communicate much/well) on the reservation her mother grew up on. Rayona encounters both the odious and the angelic as she learns her own value. This section is satisfying if familiar, and could stand on its own as an unimpressive novella; I put the book aside for a month or so between finishing it and moving on to the next section.

It turns out that Rayona’s mother Christine is a wonderful revelation. She is severely flawed, and perhaps in some ways unlikeable, but at the same time contains a sort of nobility or magnificence that demands a reader’s compassion. I loved reading this section, and I loved this character. I read Rayona and Ida with interest, but I read Christine with connection. Her flaws are rooted in her upbringing, in her emotional force, in her suffocated love of life; she is a splendid woman for all of her stilted steeliness and self-destruction. She isn’t precisely punishing herself toward redemption, but her life contains an omnipresent mixture of humility and rage. Christine works with what she has—vitality sans pluckiness. If I take one thing from this book, it will be the love I felt for this character.

Ida’s section is decent, but like Rayona’s section it didn’t carry the emotion of Christine’s. I encountered a few quibbles with the plot, but overall I was fine with the revelations the section contained, and satisfied with Ida and the book as a whole.

Although the book presents three female protagonists who speak from the first person, the men in the book occupy a strange space. They are almost ghosts of a sort. Lee (Christine’s brother), as one of the most important characters in the book, serves fundamentally as a ghost figure. When Lee is alive, he represents life itself—he is vital, beautiful, worshiped, humble, caring, naive. In his death, he is the loss of these things. For Rayona he is a lost heritage, for Christine he is life ruptured, for Ida he is a now-absent validation of her motherhood to Christine. Overall, the men in the book exist in either weakness (Father Tom, Elgin, Lecan) or strength (Sky, Dayton, Father Hurlburt), and it is up to the women to secure for themselves the proper support. I found it humorous that the final dialogue in the book is Father Hurlburt asking Ida, “What are you doing?” while not resisting her, as if the best thing a man can do is to allow a woman space and support; understanding left implicit, and always available.
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LibraryThing member Deelightful
This is one of my all-time favorite books. It admirably shows the danger of keeping poisonous family secrets and how the poison dribbles down through the generations to affect all members of the family. Michael Dorris channels the voices of his female characters with great skill.
LibraryThing member BookConcierge
Dorris braids a single story told in reverse chronological order, from three unique perspectives. Rayona, a 15-year-old “half-breed,” begins the story, relaying her efforts to raise her own irresponsible mother. We then move to Ray’s mother, Christine, who recounts her struggles growing up and rebelling against her unaffectionate mother, Aunt Ida. Finally we hear from Aunt Ida, the matriarch of the family, whose secrets have shaped her daughter and granddaughter in ways she never intended.

It’s a great premise for a literary work. However, I don’t think Dorris succeeds in his execution. I really grew to care about Rayona, but then her story ends abruptly and Dorris transfers the tale to Christine. Because they are both portrayed as so unfeeling and irresponsible, I had a hard time caring about Christine or Aunt Ida, though I did begin to empathize with Ida when she finally tells her story in part three. HERE is a story I really want to know more about. But Dorris ends the book abruptly … almost mid-sentence.

I’m left feeling very dissatisfied, and almost as if I wasted my time reading this. A reviewer on amazon.com wrote this: It’s pretty much like a wonderful chocolate mousse with cockroaches stirred in here and there. The mousse is wonderful, but you’ll never forget the images and crunches of those bits of cockroaches.

It gets 2 stars from me – I can’t think of anyone to whom I’d recommend this book.
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LibraryThing member LaraRose
A beautiful and memorable story. Dorris creates believable voices for these three very different women. At the beginning, I wasn't sure how their stories would tie together, but their connection is revealed by the time you reach the end. However, I thought Rayona's story was a little unfinished; I wanted to know what would happen with Ellen DeMarco, but it she never reappeared in the story. Despite this, I greatly enjoyed this novel, and it will go among my favorites.… (more)
LibraryThing member slightlyfan
I read this book for school and surprisingly liked it.

It is the story of three generations of girls from the same family. Its amazing how three very different people from the same family can influence eachothers lives.

It had a good story and iteresting characters, but it did run a little long. But it does pick up.… (more)




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