A Yellow Raft in Blue Water Characters

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1987

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Family

Time of work: Late 1980’s

Locale: The Pacific Northwest

Characters DiscussedRayona Taylor

Rayona Yellow Raft in Blue Water, ATaylor, the fifteen-year-old daughter of American Indian Christine George Taylor and African American Elgin Taylor. After Rayona’s parents separate, she is brought up by her alcoholic mother. When Christine becomes seriously ill as a result of her drinking, she is committed to a detoxification ward. Rayona helps her to escape, and they drive to the Montana reservation where Christine was reared. When they arrive, Christine deserts Rayona and leaves her with Ida. Father Tom, a young Catholic priest new to the reservation, recruits Rayona into a parish youth group known as the “God Squad.” He invites her to a weekend youth rally in Helena, and on the way they stop for a swim in Bearpaw Lake. Tom feigns drowning. Rayona rescues him and drags him onto a yellow raft in the middle of the lake. He makes sexual advances toward her and blames her for his actions. Appalled at his own behavior, Tom deserts Rayona, and she finds herself homeless and alone. She wanders into Bearpaw State Park and meets Sky and Evelyn. She stays with them during the summer and works on the maintenance crew at the park. At the end of the season, Evelyn and Sky drive Rayona back to the reservation to find Christine. They arrive on the day of the annual rodeo. Rayona meets her cousin, Foxy Cree. He is scheduled to ride but is too drunk. He convinces Rayona to impersonate him and ride in his place. Rayona accepts the challenge and rides Dayton Nichols’ feisty horse, Babe. She is thrown three times but refuses to admit defeat and remounts. Her determination and courage win the admiration of the crowd, and the judges award her a prize. When she steps to the podium to accept, she reveals her true identity. Evelyn and Sky leave her in the care of Dayton, who takes her home to be reunited with Christine.

Christine George Taylor

Christine George Taylor, Rayona’s mother and the supposed daughter of Ida. Feeling unloved by Ida, craving attention, and living in the shadow of her talented brother Lee, Christine turns to men and alcohol for solace in her teenage years. Although she admires Lee, she is intimidated by him. She realizes that his reputation as an up-and-coming member of the Indian community enhances her own social position. When Lee and Dayton protest against the Vietnam War draft, Christine believes that Lee’s reputation will be damaged, thereby diminishing her own social status; she convinces him to join the service. Later, Christine moves to Seattle, meets Elgin Taylor, becomes pregnant by him, and marries him. After a rocky marriage of fifteen years, Elgin leaves Christine for the last time while she is in the hospital recovering from her latest binge. Sick, hurt, and afraid, Christine drives to the Montana reservation with Rayona and leaves her with Ida. Still unwelcome at Ida’s home, she moves in with Dayton.

Ida George

Ida George, the mother of Lee and foster mother of Christine. Although Ida is thought to be Christine’s mother and Rayona’s grandmother, she actually is Christine’s half-sister and cousin. When Ida’s aunt Clara (her mother’s sister) became pregnant by Ida’s father, the family agreed to conceal the scandal by claiming that Ida was the one who was pregnant. Ida accompanied Clara, who posed as Ida’s guardian, to a Catholic home for unwed mothers in Denver. After giving birth, Clara remained in Denver and Ida returned to the reservation with Christine and reared her as her own child. After the death of her parents several years later, Ida lived for a short time with disabled Korean War veteran Willard Pretty Dog, Lee’s father. Ida and he separated, and she refused to acknowledge him or anyone else as Lee’s father. Ida reared Lee and Christine as brother and sister, never revealing to them the truth about their parentage.

Lee George

Lee George, Christine’s foster brother and cousin. An accomplished rodeo rider and performer of traditional Indian dances, he is well thought of on the reservation and is expected to be a strong tribal leader. He is killed in the Vietnam War and is given a hero’s burial.

Dayton Nichols

Dayton Nichols, Lee’s best friend. Christine, envious of his friendship with Lee, tries to seduce Dayton as a means of breaking up their relationship. He rebuffs her, and she resents him even more. Years later, after Lee’s death, her illness and their common memories of Lee heal and bring them together.


Evelyn and


Sky, Rayona’s surrogate parents when she works at Bearpaw State Park. Their home is the first stable environment she has known.

Father Hurlbert

Father Hurlbert, a Catholic priest who becomes Ida’s best friend and only confidant.

BibliographyBroyard, Anatole. “Eccentricity Was All They Could Afford.” The New York Times Book Review, June 7, 1987, 7. Broyard observes that in A Yellow Raft in Blue Water Dorris describes a dying culture. The reviewer also notes that there is not much conventional plot but that the book’s women are beautifully realized, and that the real movement of the novel lies in the way the three versions of their story comment on and harmonize with one another.Chavkin, Allan, and Nancy Feyl Chavkin. Conversations with Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994. A gathering of interviews with Dorris and his wife that have appeared in various sources since the late 1980’s. The interviews also cast light on the values–literary, ethical, spiritual– that inform the couple’s work. Indispensable to any serious study of either writer.Cowart, David. “ The Rhythm of Three Strands’: Cultural Braiding in Dorris’s A Yellow Raft in Blue Water.” The Journal of the Association for the Studies of American Indian Literature 8 (Spring, 1996): 1-12. Explores the symbolism of the braid in Dorris’s novel as portrayed in the joining together of the lives of Ida, Christine, and Rayona through the common cultural bond they share.Kakutani, Michiko. “Multiple Perspectives.” The New York Times, May 9, 1987, p. B13. Kakutani notes the similarity in narrative method between this novel and The Beet Queen and comments that a strength of Dorris’s novel is its depiction of elusive states of mind through tiny details. Kakutani’s observation that the men in the novel are either sex objects or cads seems surprisingly off the mark.Lesser, Wendy. “Braided Lives Under Big Sky.” The Washington Post Book Week, May 31, 1987, 5. Dorris’s style is seen as a matter of pressing down on the prosaic until it yields its own poetry in a sharp observation of reality. The mundane, through cumulative effect, becomes the marvelous. Dorris, Lesser comments, also creates a number of good minor characters.MacCurtain, Austin. “In Free Fall.” The Times Literary Supplement, March 11, 1988, 276. MacCurtain observes that the device of multiple narrators gives density and richness of texture to the story. Its themes emerge without an omniscient authorial voice. Yet the high literary polish of the narratives may distort the terms in which such people see themselves and tell their stories.Morris, Adalaide. “First Persons Plural in Contemporary Feminist Fiction.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 11 (Spring, 1992): 11-29. Focusing on Dorris’s A Yellow Raft in Blue Water, as well as Joan Chase’s During the Reign of the Queen of Persia (1983) and Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s Disturbances in the Field (1983), Morris explores the attempts of the authors to combine two philosophies in order to create a feminist political alliance that crosses generations, race, class, age, and sexual preference.
Categories: Characters