Critical Essays Dorris' Narrative Technique


A Yellow Raft in Blue Water is especially noteworthy for the narrative technique that Dorris uses to tell the stories of the three female protagonists. Rather than narrate the history of these three women's lives in a linear fashion, in which one episode directly follows another, Dorris opts for a more Native-American narrative structure, in which the plot is circular rather than linear and no single episode or narrator is more important than any other. This circularity emphasizes the totality of experience rather than individual viewpoints, for only through the culmination of all experiences do we understand the history — and future — of the complete telling.

Rayona's narrative section, which forms the first third of the novel, is the most stand-alone section of the novel, but Rayona discusses more than just her own history, as do the two narrative sections that follow hers. She begins her narration with the episode in which she's visiting her mother, Christine, in the hospital. Her narration then moves to her experiences at Bearpaw Lake State Park, then at the rodeo, and finally at Dayton's house. However, the episode at the hospital is again related in Chapter 14 by Christine, and we get a different, new perspective on the events that transpire. For example, whereas Rayona cannot understand why her mother cheats at cards, we learn in Christine's narration that Christine cheats because she wants to be caught.

Even more revealing in terms of dual narrations of the same event is the episode in which Christine seems so determined to get a lifetime video membership for Rayona at a video rental store. Rayona cannot understand why her mother seems so obsessed with the video membership, but in Christine's narrative section, we learn that Christine thinks of the membership as an heirloom gift for Rayona, something that will remind Rayona of Christine and give Rayona a sense of permanence in the world. Rayona is unable to understand Christine's reasoning, as are we when we read Rayona's narration. Only after we read Christine's narrative section do we understand the significance of the lifetime video membership.

Another example of how one character perceives experiences differently than another character concerns Christine's receiving the package of medicine from her friend, Charlene. When the package arrives at Aunt Ida's, Rayona, who's now staying with Aunt Ida, her grandmother, assumes that the package will entice Christine to at least show up to get the package. However, one day when Rayona arrives home at Aunt Ida's, she notices that the package is gone: Christine has come to get the package but didn't even stay to see Rayona or leave a note. Naturally, Rayona perceives Christine's actions as evidence of abandonment. However, we then learn in Christine's narrative section that Christine hasn't abandoned Rayona but, rather, hopes that Aunt Ida will do a better job of raising Rayona than Christine has done. Christine's actions are meant to help her daughter, but Rayona can't know this because Christine never tells her. Only by reading both Rayona's and Christine's narrations do we learn the motivations for Christine's apparently selfish acts.

Ida's narrative section provides the foundation on which Rayona's and Christine's narrations rest. As she says at the beginning of her section, "I have to tell this story every day, add to it, revise, invent the parts I forget or never knew. . . . I am the story." Ida is correct in her claim that she is the story, for without her, Rayona's and Christine's narrations would not have the power that they do. But Ida's story is as much about what she doesn't say as it is about what she does. Hers contains the secrets that might help both Rayona and Christine better understand their own lives.

Ida's secrets include who Christine's real mother is, who Lee's real father is, and who she herself is in relation to Christine and Rayona. To Christine, Ida is paradoxically her legal mother, her half-sister, and her first cousin, and she insists on being called Aunt Ida. To Rayona, Ida is her legal grandmother and her aunt.

Ida's narration, which seems more about Christine and Lee as children growing up on the reservation than it does about herself, holds the best promise that her many kept secrets will be revealed and that the female members of her family will benefit from their being told. Concerning her own story, Ida says, "No one but me carries it all and no one will — unless I tell Rayona, who might understand." The key phrase here — "unless I tell Rayona" — is important because Ida will probably pass on the family's story to Rayona before she dies. She no doubt understands the importance of family history and will not allow it to die when she does.

Our last image of Ida is at the end of the novel, when she begins braiding her hair. This image of braiding symbolizes the three narrative strands that cumulatively make up Dorris' novel. The three strands of hair represent the three narrative stories that are the novel. Speaking of Father Hurlburt, Ida narrates, "As a man with cut hair, he did not identify the rhythm of three strands, the whispers of coming and going, of twisting and tying and blending, of catching and letting go, of braiding." Ida's comments here are more about the narrative structure of the novel than they are about her braiding her hair. Together, the three distinctive yet intertwined stories that are Rayona's, Christine's, and Ida's histories are the interrelated and dependent narratives that create A Yellow Raft in Blue Water.

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