A Yellow Raft in Blue Water is a novel I won’t soon forget. Set in Seattle and Montana, it tells the tale of three Native American women—Rayona, Christine and Ida—each in her own voice. They are related, a family, and their worlds intersect and tear apart, span out and braid back together, but it is not until the ending that the reader fully understands how the events which start the novel have come to pass.
It is told in reverse, starting with the youngest, Rayona or Ray for short. At first, her strength lies in the unconditional love she has for her mother but after her mother deserts her and she is forced to fend for herself (and is molested by a priest), she shows that her strength does not come from others. She is a warrior and by the end of her story, she comes to embody the spirit of all those missing who came before her—all those we don’t truly know about until the end of the book.
Christine seems weak, diseased and tormented with feelings that her mother did not love her. These lifelong feelings led her down a path of promiscuity and jealousy goaded her into pressuring her beloved brother to enlist. And when he does and dies in Vietnam, it is as if he is reborn in her daughter. The same feelings of unworthiness consume her until her health fails and she returns home to find love again—love in an old friend, love in her daughter and love in the woman who raised her.
Aunt Ida is the true enigma and the undying and unexpected source of strength. She has martyred herself and because of this, the lives of others have turned sour. But her goal was an honorable one. She wanted love and to be loved. She wanted safety. She wanted to weave together disparate parts and form a whole. As shown at the end of the book when Ida takes the one man who never hurt her to the roof of her house, she wanted to braid her loved ones together and have them be stronger for it.
The cold was unbearable because the air was so still. I let the blanket slip from my shoulders, lifted my arms about my head, and began.
“What are you doing?” Father Hurlburt asked.
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 of letting go, of braiding.