A Yellow Raft in Blue Water By Michael Dorris Summary and Analysis Rayona: Chapter 4

Summary

Tired of being an outcast, Rayona considers leaving the reservation and returning to Seattle on her own. Before she can act on her plans to escape, however, Father Tom cajoles her into accompanying him to a Teens for Christ Jamboree near Helena, Montana. Rayona can't think of any way to get out of going to what she thinks will be a waste of time. Before she leaves with Father Tom for Helena, she realizes that Christine has picked up the medicine package at Aunt Ida's. She's depressed because Christine didn't even try to see her; she seems to be less important to Christine than a package.

The drive to the jamboree is a nightmare for Rayona. Father Tom talks incessantly. She makes up outrageous stories about her past, including a dead mother and a father who's an international airline pilot. When Father Tom mentions Rayona's dual heritage, she responds to him with icy coldness. He also questions her again about sex.

Rayona and Father Tom stop at Bearpaw Lake State Park; Rayona is surprised to learn that the jamboree doesn't start until the next day. After several unsuccessful attempts at firing up the grill, and besieged with buzzing, stinging gnats, Father Tom gives up and suggests that they go for a swim. About fifty feet out from the shore, a yellow wooden raft is anchored. Rayona swims to the raft and suns herself. Father Tom tries to swim to the raft but starts drowning, and Rayona jumps into the water and saves him by roughly pulling him onto the raft.

As Rayona and Father Tom lie together on the yellow raft, Father Tom moves his body close to Rayona's and begins rubbing his hips against her. Rayona enters a dreamlike trance so that we don't know exactly what happens sexually between her and Father Tom. Rayona narrates, "In my dream I move with him, pin him to me with my strong arms, search for his face with my mouth." Afterward, Father Tom says they have sinned and that they must return to the reservation. He wants Rayona to forget the entire incident.

Rayona refuses to return to the reservation, saying instead that she's going to Seattle. Perhaps out of guilt and embarrassment, Father Tom encourages her to go and even gives her money for the trip. He leaves her at a train station and heads back to the reservation. However, when the train arrives, Rayona chooses not to get on it. She thinks to herself, "I'm happy without reason."

Analysis

Rayona's realization that Christine has picked up the box of medicine from Aunt Ida's without even waiting to see her emotionally devastates Rayona. She must finally face Christine's abandonment of her (although we learn in Christine's narration that Christine thinks she's actually helping Rayona by not seeing her).

Rayona thinks, "I'm not as important as some package she needs from Seattle. My presence won't bring her back." As this point in the novel, however, without having yet read Christine's narration, we sympathize only with Rayona.

During the ride to the Christian jamboree with Father Tom, Rayona lies that her mother is dead. But to a great extent, Christine is dead to Rayona — at least emotionally. Father Tom additionally complicates Rayona's life when he continually talks about how she's "different" in terms of her mixed racial heritage. Rayona denies that she's different from everyone else, but Father Tom's response — "Not that you shouldn't be proud of [being different]" — seems a little too late to comfort Rayona. Although he's trying to help Rayona, Father Tom harms her more than he helps her. Also, note that during their drive, Father Tom again brings up the subject of sex.

The important theme of the color yellow as a symbol of safety and, paradoxically, false identity is introduced here in Chapter 4. Moored about fifty feet out from the shore at Bearpaw Lake, where Rayona and Father Tom stop, is a wooden raft, painted yellow. When Rayona swims out to the raft, she experiences a feeling of being totally clean, both physically and emotionally. This feeling recalls the time when she tried pulling up all the weeds immediately after Christine left her at Aunt Ida's. Lying on the yellow raft, Rayona feels safe, cut off from the many problems she has to deal with on land. Truly, the raft is an island of contentment.

This contented feeling is suddenly broken when Father Tom attempts to swim to the raft and almost drowns. Heroically, Rayona pulls Father Tom to safety on the raft. Now, with Father Tom also on the raft, the safety that Rayona originally felt turns threatening. Although Dorris is somewhat — and purposefully — vague in his narration about what exactly happens between Rayona and Father Tom on the raft, we know that a sexual act of some sort happens between them. Dorris writes of Father Tom's physical actions with Rayona, "He presses, presses, presses. . . . His hips jerk against me." Rayona, unable to cope with what is happening to her, sinks into a dreamlike state: "In my dream I move with him, pin him to me with my strong arms, search for his face with my mouth." Now scared of his own actions, Father Tom asks Rayona, "What are you doing?" thereby placing the responsibility for any sexual actions between them on Rayona. Rayona is once again faced with an adult who seems to have no control over his actions. The best that Father Tom can do is give money to Rayona for her planned return to Seattle. In fact, he's paying her for her silence.

Faced with nowhere to go and with no one on whom she can rely, Rayona cannot even gain strength from her memories of her mother and father. Elgin left Christine; Christine left Rayona; Rayona can leave no one because she's all that she has. As she'll think at the beginning of the next Chapter, "I wake up lost."

Glossary

Great Northern the name of a railway line.

hootenannies informal performances by folk singers.

rap sessions spontaneous and informal discussions held by people with similar concerns, problems, or causes.

a miraculous medal On November 27, 1830, the Virgin Mary appeared to Catherine Laboure in a vision and asked her to have a medal made. On the front of the medal was to be a representation of Mary herself. The back was to have, among other things, a picture of two hearts, the Sacred Heart with a crown of thorns around it and the Heart of Mary pierced by a sword. Catherine reported that Mary said to her, "Have this medal struck and all who wear it shall receive great graces if they wear it around their neck."

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