A Yellow Raft in Blue Water
is Dorris' first novel, a resounding success. Concerned with the lives of three female Native Americans, the novel interweaves these women's narratives in a cyclical pattern in which all three women — grandmother, daughter, and granddaughter — discuss their perceptions of many of the same events in their lives. Each woman is trying to find a personal identity, to define herself not only in terms ofself
but in relation to the other women.
In an interview, Dorris has said, "In a matrilocal kinship system, a woman remains a resident in the household of her birth, and passes on the privilege to her own daughters and granddaughters." In the novel, Aunt Ida, the grandmother, faces the challenge referred to in Dorris' quote in a very unconventional way. Aunt Ida's daughter, Christine, misperceives her mother's motives as hatred and disgust, but it is to Aunt Ida whom Christine turns when she realizes that her daughter, Rayona, is not receiving the proper parenting that Christine feels Rayona should have. Christine returns "home" to Aunt Ida's, as does Rayona eventually.
The novel is as much about creating a sense of home, or a sense of place, as it is about an actual, physical home, which, for Aunt Ida, is a house on a Montana reservation. Dorris has said, "Identifying home is then in essence an act of ongoing imagination." Each woman in the novel is caught up in defining what "home" means to her. For Aunt Ida, daily existence comprises reenacting her past, but her reenactment is an act of imagination. At one point in the novel, she narrates, "I have to tell this story every day, add to it, revise, invent the parts I forget or never knew." Christine recognizes that her life is headed in a downward spiral, in part because she is no longer able to imagine a better life for herself. And so she takes her teenage daughter, Rayona, to Aunt Ida's for Aunt Ida to raise. Rayona, however, is also engaged in a personal battle of imagination, but hers is destructive in that she wants to be anyone but herself. In her mind, if she were someone else, she wouldn't have to face the teasing that she gets because of her mixed black-Indian heritage (her father is black). Nor would she then experience the displacement that characterizes both her life and Christine's life.
Through these three women's narrations, Dorris creates a fictional world that mirrors real-life situations. Aunt Ida is a single mother by choice, opting to raise Christine and her son, Lee, alone. Christine, too, is a single mother; she and her husband, Elgin, Rayona's father, are estranged, although they have an on-again, off-again sexual relationship. And Rayona, as the youngest member of this female trio, faces the daunting challenge of finding her place in this chaotic, unconventional world in the novel. Hers is a coming-of-age story.