Summary and Analysis
A Yellow Raft in Blue Water begins in a hospital setting. Rayona, a fifteen-year-old teenager with long, frizzy hair, is visiting her mother, Christine, who claims to be sick. For the last two hours, Rayona and her mother have been playing solitaire; Rayona's mother cheats at the game, and Rayona lets her.
When Rayona's father, Elgin, enters the hospital room, Rayona acts coldly toward him. She hasn't seen him since her fifteenth birthday, five months earlier. Elgin and Christine, who are married but estranged, do not get along either. He claims that she isn't sick (and Rayona agrees), but Christine says that she is. She yells at Elgin to "go back to your little black girl" — Elgin's having an affair. We learn that Christine is a Native American and that Elgin is black; thus Rayona is half Native American, half black.
Rayona leaves Christine's hospital room, intending to drive Christine's car home. However, by the time she gets to the car, parked in the hospital parking lot, Christine is already there, trying to break into the car because Rayona has the keys; Christine and Elgin are not going home together. In fact, they never live together for more than one week at a time before Elgin moves out, only to repeat the cycle again and again.
Disappointed with her life, Christine announces melodramatically that she's going to commit suicide. Rayona can go to live with her grandmother, Aunt Ida, on a Montana reservation. Rayona jumps into the car, and Christine drives toward Tacoma, Washington, where she still insists that she intends to drive the car off the road and kill herself. However, Rayona won't get out of the car, and when she finally does, the car runs out of gas: Christine can't kill herself. Chapter 1 ends with Rayona and Christine walking to a gas station to get gas for the car.
In Chapter 1, Dorris introduces three of his most important themes: sickness, family, and racial identity. Dorris emphasizes these three themes by beginning the novel in a hospital, where Christine, a Native-American woman hospitalized because of poor, deteriorating health brought on by drinking, and visited by her daughter, Rayona, and her husband, Elgin, struggles to keep her sanity.
The game of solitaire, which Christine and Rayona play, symbolizes the lonely existence that both women live. Ironically, however, their isolation means that they must depend on each other for companionship. Christine cheats at the game, and Rayona allows her to, but what Rayona doesn't realize is that Christine wants Rayona to catch her at cheating. Apparently, their roles are reversed: Christine acts like the rebellious, irrational daughter, and Rayona acts like the wise mother, chiding Christine that she's not taking care of herself the way she should.
The tense family dynamics of Rayona's family are introduced when Elgin, Rayona's father and Christine's husband, shows up at the hospital. Before Elgin's appearance, Dorris notes that Christine's wedding ring "cuts into her third finger"; Christine's marriage to Elgin is anything but idyllic. Christine tells Elgin to leave, but Elgin, thinking that Christine's stay in the hospital is only one more of many times she's been there, tells Christine that she's only playacting at being sick. Unfortunately, he doesn't realize that Christine is very sick; this time, she's not faking an illness.
Christine's comment to Elgin, "Go back to your little black girl," emphasizes the untraditional relationship between Christine and Elgin. Elgin is having an affair, and Christine knows it.
However, what the reader doesn't know — yet — is that Elgin's seeing someone else is part of the pattern that Christine and Elgin have established in their marriage. They rely on the regularity of their on-again, off-again marriage, and both concede that this is the only way they can relate. Later in the Chapter, Rayona acknowledges that her parents cannot be around each other for long periods of time without fighting.
Elgin's appearance in the hospital room focuses the reader's attention on racial heritage. Elgin is black; Christine is Native American (Dorris never discloses what Indian nation Christine belongs to); and Rayona is half black, half Native American. Rayona's mixed heritage is a source of discomfort for her. She never feels that she fits into any established racial category. Although she feels isolated from everyone else because of her dual race heritage, she's able to find humor in her situation. For example, in a hardware store, she matched paint colors to her skin color: "I found each of our exact shades on a paint mix-tone chart. Mom was Almond Joy, Dad was Burnt Clay, and I was Maple Walnut." However, Rayona's humor only hides the deep emotional problems that she has about who she really is. She is a young woman who is trying to discover her personal identity, with no apparent help from her mother or her father, who rarely sees his daughter.
The end of Chapter 1 introduces mystery into the novel. Rayona remembers Christine's taking her to her Uncle Lee's funeral, and now Christine wants to take Rayona to Aunt Ida's on the Montana reservation. Rayona knows only that Christine idolizes Lee, Christine's dead brother, and seemingly hates Aunt Ida, Christine's mother and Rayona's grandmother, whom she hasn't seen since she was about eight years old.
abalone The "stone" in Christine's ring is carved from the pearly, iridescent inner shell of the abalone, an edible marine gastropod.
Volaré a Plymouth automobile manufactured by the Chrysler Corporation in the late 1970s.
Last Rites Catholic rites or sacraments administered to a dying person.
candy striper a volunteer worker in a hospital; originally they wore pink-and-white-striped uniforms.