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Literature / A Yellow Raft in Blue Water

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A Yellow Raft In Blue Water is a 1987 novel written by Michael Dorris that explores the lives of three Native American women. The first story is told by Rayona Taylor, the daughter of Native American Christine Taylor and Afro-American Elgin Taylor, with its story taking place in The '80s. The second is told by the mother Christine, with the backdrop of her story being The Vietnam War and the third is told by the mysterious Aunt Ida, with the backdrop of her story being World War II.

This story provides examples of:

  • The Alcoholic: Surprisingly, Father Hurlburt. Ida finds out but doesn't mention it to anybody else.
  • Alcoholic Parent: Christine Taylor was this to her daughter Rayona up until she was diagnosed with a terminal illness that made her go back to the Indian reservation she came from.
  • Birth/Death Juxtaposition: Rayona's birth takes place around the same time Christine gets word that her brother Lee is dead.
  • Bookends: The book begins with Christine braiding Rayona's hair at the beginning of Rayona's story. It ends with Aunt Ida braiding her own hair at the end of Ida's story.
  • Bring My Brown Pants: Christine wets herself when she tries to do something really daring as a kid to impress her friends and ends up in a situation that makes her so frightened that her brother Lee had to come to her rescue.
  • Chekhov's Gag: The two videotapes, Christine and Little Big Man, that Christine and Rayona rent from Village Video in a Seattle suburb in Rayona's story later show up in Christine's story when Dayton gets a VCR and Rayona produces the tapes for them to watch.
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  • Christianity Is Catholic: According to this story and the characters in it, as they interact with nobody else of the Christian faith but Catholics. A Catholic missions church is on the reservation, run by Father Hurlburt with Father Tom Novak as a youth pastor understudy, who turns out to be a creepy priest that likes to molest young teenage girls, as Rayona found out. Ida and her aunt Clara are sent to a Catholic motherhouse in Colorado so Clara could have her baby (whom she eventually gives up to Ida) without anybody else on the reservation knowing about it. Rayona herself runs into Catholics both in the Seattle area and in Montana. Evelyn's former first husband was a Catholic, who was basically scared of his own crap, according to Evelyn.
  • Curly Hair Is Ugly: Lee mocks his mother Aunt Ida when Christine gives her a home perm treatment on New Years' Eve to give her curly hair. At first, Ida seemed to appreciate it as she looked at herself in the mirror, but after the mocking, she ended up straightening her hair again and doing it up in a long braid.
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  • Dead Guy Junior: Ida's son would have been named after Lecon, his grandfather, who passed away sometime after Ida's mother, but Ida chose to name him Lee "to be different".
  • Death Glare: Evelyn gives Father Tom one when they meet at the rodeo, with Father Tom being so unnerved by her stare, knowing that she knows about what he was trying to do with Rayona, that he shrinks back into the crowd looking to escape.
  • Did I Mention It's Christmas?: Lee's funeral takes place around Christmas, as Christine and Dayton both go to a restaurant in the Montana area that still has its Christmas decorations put up. There's also a brief mention of a Christmas that Ida has with her family around the time that Clara announces she's pregnant.
  • Disappeared Dad:
    • Elgin Taylor doesn't have much of a fatherly role in Rayona's life, due to his on-and-off relationship with Rayona's mother Christine. Dayton Nickles ends up filling the role after Elgin leaves and Christine and Rayona return to the reservation.
    • Neither Willard Pretty Dog nor Aunt Ida let Lee know that Willard is actually Lee's father in an affair that Ida had with him. So he remains pretty much oblivious to the actual identity of his father.
    • And of course, Christine never knew that she and Ida shared the same father, who ended up spending most of his time away from his family.
  • Dishonored Dead: Christine is upset that Aunt Ida decides to drape a tablecloth over Lee's coffin instead of having the American flag draped over it in honor of his service to his country as an American soldier. However, it's only to Christine that it's considered a dishonor.
  • Do Not Call Me "Paul": An inversion: Aunt Ida insists on being called that even by her granddaughter (technically niece) Rayona.
  • Draft Dodging: Sky is a draft dodger who escaped to Canada, but later came back to the United States when his father left him the gas station. Dayton Nickles got out of joining the army due to the "sole surviving son" clause. Lee would have been a draft dodger, but Christine had Dayton talk him into joining the army.
  • Dumb Blonde: Ellen DeMarco is made out to be this by one of Rayona's fellow workers at Bearpaw Lake State Park. She proves to be otherwise when she flips off one of the workers who tries to get Ellen to save him from drowning just so she could do mouth-to-mouth on him.
  • Embarrassing First Name: Dayton in his school yearbook chose to be called "D. Nickles" because he didn't like what his name could be twisted into, given the insinuations that came with his constant palling around with Christine's brother Lee.
  • The End of the World as We Know It: Besides the New Years Eve incident mentioned in all three stories which made Christine rather fearful, in which nothing cosmic ended up happening, there's also a mention of a religious TV program in Rayona's story about a pastor showing various signs of the end coming.
  • Erudite Stoner: Sky, the gas station attendant who along with his wife Evelyn puts Rayona up in their trailer after escaping Pastor Tom, is made out to be this.
  • Excrement Statement: Foxy Cree curses up a storm when the horse he prepares to bring to the rodeo craps on his new boots, after he riles her up for the ride he intends to have with her.
  • The Faceless: Clara's supposed sexual assailant in the eyes of the nuns that she told her story to so she could stay at the convent where she gave birth to Christine in Ida's story.
  • Family Relationship Switcheroo: A slightly confusing example occurs here: Christine is really the daughter of Ida's father and her aunt Clara on her mother's side, making her technically Ida's three-quarter sister (or something like that) but Christine was raised to believe she was Ida's in order to cover up the affair that created her. This is made even weirder by Ida's insistence that Christine call her "Aunt Ida." In the end only Ida and the reader knows this.
    • Probably just as weird is that Lee, who is Aunt Ida's son, also has to refer to her as Aunt Ida to cover up the fact that Ida had an affair with Willard Pretty Dog before he got married.
  • Flipping the Bird: Ellen DeMarco's response to one of the Bearpaw Lake workers faking a drowning so he could get her to do mouth-to-mouth on him.
  • Fun with Foreign Languages: Father Tom Novak has been trying to learn how to speak Native American. However, the only phrase he can fluently say actually means "I smell like dog shit." Rayona suspects that it was given to Father Tom as a joke.
  • Get Out!: Christine to her husband Elgin when he finally decides to leave the marriage while she was in the Indian Health Service hospital sick.
  • Girls With Mustaches: One of the nuns in the convent Ida and Clara were staying in had a mustache.
  • Half-Breed Discrimination: Rayona is half-Native American and half-African American, and finds that she fits in with neither culture.
  • Hallucinations: Christine has hallucinations of her dead brother Lee appearing in various places. The first time she has one is when she's driving all the way to her reservation in Montana for her brother's funeral.
  • Heel–Faith Turn: Near the end of Rayona's story, Christine tells her daughter that she plans on returning to church.
  • Heroic Bastard: Lee George, who is the son of Ida George and Willard Pretty Dog during an affair they had, who ends up as a martyred war hero in Vietnam.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Lee George and Dayton Nickles, although how heterosexual they were is up for debate. There was a bit of a mystery as to what Lee and Dayton did together for a time when they left the reservation together before returning to tell Aunt Ida that Lee was drafted into the Army.
  • Honorable Marriage Proposal: In Christine's story, when Christine announces to Elgin after they made love in public at Tacoma State Park that she's pregnant, Elgin insists on marrying Christine so that the child wouldn't be without a father.
  • Identity Impersonator: Rayona managed to disguise herself as her cousin Foxy Cree when he was too drunk for his bronco ride at the rodeo.
  • Important Haircut: In Christine's story, Lee gives Aunt Ida his braided hair to let her know that he had now joined the Army.
  • Jackass: Rayona's cousin Foxy Cree, in the way that he treats her and his girlfriend Annabelle Stiffarm. Annabelle pretty much goes along with it at first when we meet her, but later on acts pretty pissed about her boyfriend's behavior and gives him a serious scolding after Rayona's rodeo ride.
  • Key Under the Doormat: Dayton Nickles left a key outside the front door of his house in this manner, which allowed Christine to go inside and make herself at home before Dayton came home to find her there.
  • A Lady on Each Arm: What Rayona mentions she couldn't picture her mother's friend Dayton being like.
  • Last-Minute Baby Naming/Line-of-Sight Name: Christine was expecting the child to be a boy and was planning to call him Ray, but when it turned out to be a girl, and Elgin thought about calling her Diane, she defended her decision to still call the child Ray and ended up with Rayona after looking at the tag of her hospital gown and seeing Rayon.
  • Like Brother and Sister: The reason Dayton ended up backing out of the kiss he had with Christine when they were still teenagers, which made Christine upset that this was how Dayton felt they were like.
  • Making Love in All the Wrong Places: Christine and Elgin make love to each other in a public park in Tacoma, which is where Christine becomes pregnant with Rayona. Fortunately for them, nobody pays any attention to what they were doing there.
  • Missing Mom: Rayona tells Father Tom that her mother was dead when he takes her on a camping trip. Father Tom seems to buy it.
  • Mistaken for Pedophile: Dayton Nickles, who was accused of being one in Christine's story when he took a teaching job outside the reservation.
  • Mistaken for Thief: Rayona mistakes her mother Christine for a thief trying to break into their car since she sees her mother wearing a candy-striper uniform that was stolen from the Indian Health Service hospital since she had no intention of staying in the hospital and was going to drive off to kill herself. Rayona attacks her by whacking her in the ass, and they both get knocked over when the car door opens and her mother turns to confront her attacker when she sees that it is Rayona.
  • Mistaken Message: A familial love message example: Rayona picks up what turns out to be one of the letters sent to Bearpaw Lake State Park swim teacher Ellen DeMarco from her parents, and after reading it wishes that this was a letter from her parents. When Sky and Evelyn find the letter in her pocket, they assume that it's a letter sent to Rayona by her own parents. When Evelyn eventually finds out where the letter actually came from, Rayona confesses the truth, and Evelyn and Sky decide to take a day off from work to bring Rayona back home.
  • Mixed Ancestry: Rayona Taylor (Native American/African American) and Dayton Nickles (Native American/Caucasian).
  • My Secret Pregnancy: Ida George's aunt Clara becomes pregnant with her father Lecon's child, and now their family is suffering possible shame because Ida's mother was barren after bearing her and her sister Pauline. Clara and Lecon come up with the solution that the child would be Ida's through an alleged illicit affair with the boy she was interested in, Willard Pretty Dog. To keep the pregnancy secret, Ida and Clara would both be sent away secretly to a Catholic mother house in Colorado where Clara could have the child and then disappear while Ida would return to the reservation, bearing the shame of being the teenage mother of Clara's child, who on paper would legally be her own child.
  • Named After Somebody Famous: Foxy Cree was originally named Kennedy, after John F. Kennedy, whose death was an important point in Christine's story as her family and friends on the reservation now see her brother Lee as "the Indian JFK". Sadly for Lee, this turns out to be more than true as Lee was found dead in Vietnam sometime after he was earlier listed as MIA.
  • New Year Has Come: Christine feared The End of the World as We Know It around New Year's Eve of 1960 and one of her Catholic teachers told her that either Russia was going to convert through the intercession of the rosary or else the whole world is doomed. Christine gave her Aunt Ida a home perm that lifted up Ida's spirits until her son Lee laughed at her. Christine falls asleep, New Year's Eve passes and nothing cosmic happens, and Aunt Ida was last seen braiding her hair. This incident is told in all three stories, with Christine telling it to her daughter Rayona as the reason she gave up on religion.
  • Nuns 'n' Rosaries: Ida's sister Pauline owns a colorful beaded rosary and is extremely proud of it. However, when Clara comments that the beads of the rosary are most likely scrap beads left over from other regular rosaries, Pauline grows upset and throws the rosary away.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Foxy Cree, whose original name is Kennedy Cree. Also Sky Dial, whose real name is Norman.
  • Parental Favoritism: Lee was perceived by Christine as the favorite child of Aunt Ida. It is one of the reasons that Christine refused to have another child with anyone after Rayona. Ida reveals that Christine is actually the child she favored over Lee.
  • Pedophile Priest: Father Tom Novak in Rayona's story, who tries to molest her while on a camping trip at Bearpaw Lake State Park. There's some Foreshadowing that this was going to happen given how the Native Americans on the reservation talk about Father Tom and the girls he hangs around with. In Christine's story, he is apparently doing penance for this misdeed by providing Christine with a supply of Percocet pills for her terminal illness.
  • Platonic Life-Partners: The relationship of Christine and her brother Lee's high school friend Dayton Nickles when she returns to the reservation after being diagnosed with a terminal illness.
  • Promotion to Parent: Aunt Ida when she raises her cousin/sister Christine as her own daughter. When Clara tries to reclaim Christine as her own child in the hopes of sending her to another family willing to adopt her, Ida fights back and refuses to restore custody, having Clara be sent away forever from her life until around the time of her death.
  • Rape as Backstory: Clara tells this kind of story to the nuns at the convent in Denver so that she could give birth to Christine without anyone suspecting the actual nature of the conception.
  • The Rez: One of the main settings for all three stories. Rayona's and Christine's stories alternates between that and Seattle.
  • Rule of Three: When Christine confronts Ida on her final return to the reservation with her daughter Rayona, Ida tells Christine to give her three good reasons why she should take her in. Christine starts with reason number one: that she is Ida's daughter. Reason number two: they need a place to stay. She tries to tell her reason number three, but pride ends up getting in the way and she tells Ida to go screw herself before she runs off.
  • The Runaway: Rayona was assumed to be this by her mother Christine, which makes her so worried that she talks about it to her friend Dayton.
  • Samus Is a Girl: Rayona was mistaken for a boy when she took her cousin Foxy Cree's place in the rodeo ride. It is when at the time she accepts her prize at the rodeo that she undoes her hair and exposes her chest that everybody finds out.
  • Secret Keeper: Father Hurlburt, who also knows the true relationship between Ida and Christine.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Christine and Little Big Man are the two videotapes that Christine and Rayona rent out from Village Video.
    • One of Aunt Ida's favorite TV shows is The People's Court.
    • Christine comments on teenage Dayton staring at her with his green eyes, saying that it is the Green Lantern bearing down.
  • Sleeping Single: Christine and Elgin as a married couple both have their own beds to sleep in since they're renting out a hotel room to live in together. They try to combine them into a double bed, but Christine ends up falling between the beds and struggling to get herself out without accidentally waking up Elgin. Eventually she decides to leave the beds single as Elgin would end up coming home later than usual, a sign of her husband's infidelity that would show up as the marriage progressed.
  • Spurned into Suicide: Christine attempts this by trying to drive her car off a cliff when her husband Elgin finally decides to walk out on their marriage. One thing that keeps it from happening is that the car ran out of gas before she could even start it up to drive it. Her daughter Rayona also talks her down from doing so.
  • Sympathetic Adulterer: Christine would imagine herself to be this whenever she was on dates with married men who hooked up with her only because their wives treated them badly, or so she thought in her own mind how she imagined their wives to be — always angry and after them for money, and were secretly cheaters themselves. Then Elgin cheats on Christine and finds herself in the role of one of those wives.
  • Took a Level in Kindness: Annabelle Stiffarm, who originally treated Rayona the same way her boyfriend Foxy Cree treated her, but later on becomes rather friendly to Rayona when they meet together at the rodeo.
  • Your Days Are Numbered: Christine contracts a terminal illness from her hard-partying lifestyle that gives her only a few months to live. She spends her remaining time living with Dayton on the reservation and teaching her daughter Rayona how to drive.
  • You Should Have Died Instead: The treatment Christine feels she got from most of the people on the reservation when she was attending the wake for her brother Lee's funeral.


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