Summary and Analysis
Ida reflects on how different Christine and Lee are while they're growing up. Lee is a fussy baby; Christine is controlled, reminding Ida of Lee's needs. In fact, Christine comes to think of herself as Lee's mother, not Ida.
As Christine and Lee grow older, they begin to question Ida about their father, thinking that they must have the same father. But Ida is adamant in not discussing who their fathers are. Christine, out of spite when she's angry at Ida, calls her "Mother" instead of "Aunt Ida," which Ida insists on. Also, Ida still fears that Clara will return and claim Christine, a thought that Ida can't stand, for she loves Christine like her own daughter, which, in every way except biologically, she is.
Ida doesn't limit Christine and Lee in anything that they want to do. She's more of a follower than a leader. For example, one night when Christine is eleven years old, Ida sees her running outside without her clothes on. Ida merely calls Christine and Lee into the house and acts as though she saw nothing; she's determined that Christine and Lee should make decisions on their own and live with the consequences.
When Christine becomes deeply involved in Catholicism, Ida doesn't discourage her interest, but she doesn't encourage it either. Christine soon becomes enthralled with a letter that the Catholic nuns at school tell her was given by the Blessed Virgin to a girl named Lucy in Portugal. Supposedly, the letter, when opened, will reveal either the end of the world or the Catholic conversion of all of Russia. Christine is so consumed by the letter that Ida, fearful, discusses it with Father Hurlburt.
On New Year's Eve night, Ida, acknowledging that Christine needs mystery in her life, allows Christine to stay up late, listening to the radio for either the end of the world or Russia's conversion. Ida is determined to allow Christine to keep her faith in miracles. When the station goes off the air late at night, Christine falls asleep. Father Hurlburt arrives, and he and Ida sit on the roof of the house and talk while Ida braids her hair.
"No two children living in the same house could have been more different, or more close." So begins the last Chapter of the novel. Ida, of course, is referring to Christine and Lee, but the statement could just as well be about Christine and Ida, who, from Lee's birth onward, fight over which one of them should care — and cares more — for Lee. When Christine was small, Ida worried that Clara would return and reclaim her. Now she must fight Christine for Lee's attention. "She believed she held the house together by the force of her will," Ida exclaims about Christine. Paradoxically, then, Christine acts independently as Ida wants her to, but at the same time Ida resents this same independence and forceful will.
Chapter 20 is more about Christine and Lee than about Ida, who appears to be the passive follower of her two children. To a great extent, because her childhood was ripped from her the moment she assumed responsibility for Clara's pregnancy, Ida lives her life through her children. "I followed in their wake," she narrates, "responding to their passions, experiencing lives I might have lived." She creates her life out of theirs, accepting Lee's insecurities about himself — "Lee did not know his own power and feared to test it" — while merely surviving Christine's brash, antagonistic hard-headedness: "For her I was the boulder to shove against, the obstacle in her path, the water through which she must swim." Ultimately, then, Christine uses Ida as a battleground to test her own strength; in contrast, Lee doesn't even acknowledge that he has any personal strength.
The novel ends with two powerful images that recur throughout the entire text: the arrival of a letter and the braiding of hair. Christine is positive that the letter from the Blessed Virgin will determine the course of events in the world. She's so certain in the validity of the letter and its possibilities that she places her entire faith in it, only to be devastated when neither Russia is converted nor the world ends. Ida comments, "Christine was snared by her innocence, by her belief in wonders of any kind, by her belief that her life mattered. . . . Christine took responsibility for the universe." Here, Ida's narration helps explain Christine's later reckless behavior, which Christine discussed earlier in her narrative section. With her hopes and religious faith shattered, Christine has nothing left to believe in — including, sadly, herself. No wonder her credo becomes "you're only young once."
The image of braiding at the end of the novel is powerful in that the physical braiding of three strands of hair mirrors the three narrative braidings of Ida's, Christine's, and Rayona's individual stories. And again, Ida's is the linchpin that holds all three narratives together. From her, no doubt, Christine learned how to braid hair, which she does to Rayona's hair in Chapter 1. And at the beginning of Chapter 17, Ida's first narrative Chapter, Ida mentions that no one knows the whole story of her and Christine's and Rayona's life — "unless I tell Rayona, who might understand." Here at the novel's end, it seems more likely that Ida eventually will tell Rayona the whole story. If she indeed does so, her telling Rayona will be a symbolic act of braiding strands of hair, of entwining "three strands, the whispers of coming and going, of twisting and tying and bending, of catching and of letting go, of braiding" these three women's lives together into one whole that is cumulatively theirs and ours, that is A Yellow Raft on Blue Water.
Kateri Tekakwitha The daughter of a Christian Algonquin mother and a pagan Mohawk chief, Tekakwitha was born in 1656 in what would become New York State. When she was four years old, all of her family died of smallpox. Tekakwitha survived but was terribly scarred and weak for the rest of her life. After she was converted by missionaries, she lived a single life, teaching prayers to children and helping the sick and aged until she died in 1680, at the age of twenty-four. She was beatified by Pope John Paul II on June 30, 1980.