Michael Dorris

(Jump down to read a review of Cloud Chamber)

"A Yellow Raft in Blue Water"

(Reviewed by Pat Neuman AUG 26, 2006)

 “Once I read a story in a magazine about how a man from the city came out to a farm and couldn’t get to sleep at night because it was too quiet. He would have had no trouble at all at Aunt Ida’s. There is always at least one radio going…. Noise fills the house and squirts outside under all the windows that won’t shut flush and through the TV antenna hole in the roof where rain gets in. I swim through the commercials and on-air auctions and news updates and pick hits like a fish in a crowded dime-store aquarium. In every room my head buzzes with voices twining in Montana accents, and outside the wasps and mosquitoes are so thick that I can’t find a place to think….” 

A Yellow Raft in Blue Water by Michael Dorris

Michael Dorris’s exquisite and unique coming of age novel is told in an unusual manner: broken into three sections told in the first person, (one for each generation of this complicated family.)  First told is by the granddaughter, Rayona Taylor, an admirably uncomplaining, brave and pragmatic young girl of mixed race (Indian and black).  When the story begins she is fifteen and is visiting her mother in a hospital in Seattle.  Although her mother is still technically married to her father, they have been apart far more than they have been together, so her life has largely been being raised by a single mother.

Unknown to Rayona, her alcoholic mother really is sick (this time).  In fact, Christine is terminally ill and she impulsively decides to take Rayona back to Montana where she leaves her in the care of her grandmother, "Aunt Ida."  Feeling rejected by her entire family and scorned as a half-breed by the other Indian kids on the reservation, Rayona inadvertently finds herself in a situation that gives her an impromptu opportunity to run away.  She is fortunate and is immediately befriended by an aging "hippie" couple and works for the summer at a campground until her true age and circumstances are discovered.

The second section is told by Rayona's mother, Christine Taylor.  She grew up on an (unnamed tribe) Indian reservation in Montana with her brother, Lee, and their single mother whom they both called "Aunt Ida."  Christine was an almost obsessively devout Catholic as a young girl, but after she had a crisis of faith, she went wild.  When a childhood friend, Dayton, starts to exert more influence over her brother than she would like, she maneuvers to get Lee to enlist in the Army as a way to separate them.  Unfortunately, Lee gets shipped to Viet Nam and is killed. 

Learning of this, Christine is staggered by unconfrontable guilt and she falls into the comfort of the arms of a tall, black, stranger, Elgin Taylor.  Shortly, when she learns that she is pregnant, he dutifully marries her, although they cannot manage to live together, they love each other enough to never get a divorce.

The final section of the novel is told from the point of view of "Aunt Ida", who has managed in her enigmatic and uncompromising way to keep some revealing and important secrets from everyone.  Her life has been a struggle to survive and has largely gone unappreciated because she keeps so much to herself. 

These stories intersect and weave the three generations of this family with the threads of the struggles of coming of age, fitting in and facing adversity.  Or, as "Aunt Ida" says "...the rhythm of three strands, the whispers of coming and going, the twisting and tying and blending, of catching and of letting go, of braiding."  The depiction of contemporary life on a reservation, the complications and alienation of bi-racial relationships and children, the assorted problems of single motherhood, and (most touchingly), the power of unspoken love are uniquely portrayed here with profound insight, humanity and tenderness. 

While this is a unique and compelling story sympathetically told, it is Dorris’s exquisite prose that makes it deserving of its place in American literature. How you not love a writer who has such a way with words as his description of Rayona's impulsive decision to ride a bronco like this:

I nod to the gate.  I’ll never be ready, but now is as good a time as any. 

“Now!” I cry, aloud or to myself I don’t know.  Everything has boiled down to this instant.  …Wheeling and spinning tilting and beating, my breath the song, the horse the dance.  Time is gone.  All the ordinary ways of things, the gettings from here to there, the ones and twos forgot.  The crowd is the color, the whirl of a spun top.  The noises blend into a waving band that flies around us like a ribbon on a string.  Beneath me four feet dance, pounding and leaping and turning and stomping.  My legs flap like wings.  I sail above, first to one side, then to the other, remembering more than feeling the slaps of our bodies together.  Things happen faster than understanding, faster than ideas.  I’m a bird coasting, shot free into the music, spiraling into a place without bones or weight.” 

This novel would truly be a classic in American Young Adult literature except that some school districts have objected to a little bit of fairly explicit sex and the dysfunctionality of all of the family units.  Read it for yourself and I think you will agree that it richly deserves a place in American writing.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 5 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from This Book at author's website

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"Cloud Chamber "

(Reviewed by Pat Neuman AUG 31, 2006)

“… Inside is a cut-glass vase.

“It’s older than we are” Aunt Edna whispers from behind me.  “An heirloom that by rights comes down to your straight from the first Rose.”

“All the way from Ireland,” I hear my grandmother brag…”

I turn the vase in my palms, letting each facet catch a distinct light, its own individual color of sky or earth.  It’s like looking at a thousand faces, each different from all the rest.”

Cloud Chamber by Michael Dorris

Ostensibly a sequel to Michael Dorris's A Yellow Raft in Blue Water this novel is also its prequel.  Beautifully told in the first person voices of the various characters, it subtly and distinctively reveals their characters, motivations and feelings.  The story line comes from a completely different direction, covering the saga of five generations beginning with the indominatable Rose Mannion, an immigrant from Ireland, and ending with Rayona Taylor from the first novel.

Rose Mannion was only seventeen when she had to flee Ireland, after springing a trap on her beloved Gerry Lynch, who had unknowingly impregnated her just before he betrayed "The Movement."  She paused only long enough to scoop up the first man she could marry and then immigrate to America.  There she raised her two sons, Andrew (sired by Lynch) who ultimately became a priest, and Robert, by her husband. 

When Andrew leaves the priesthood, he turns to his brother for a job on the railroad with him.  Unfortunately, he is almost immediately killed in an accident.  Because Rose sues the railroad, Robert loses his job and he and his family are forced to move away so that he can find work.  Years later, in an unexplained accident, Robert turns up in a hospital as a total amnesiac where his wife, Bridie, finds him and brings him home to their two daughters.  Little by little, Robert’s memory returns, but his condition is further complicated by tuberculosis and he dies.

Both of his young daughters also develop tuberculosis and spend alternating and sometimes over-lapping time in the Clearview Sanitarium.  There, the youngest, Marcella, meets and falls in love with a young black man and they elope and move to California while he serves in the Army in Germany, leaving her pregnant with their son, Elgin.  When she, too, becomes a widow, she and Elgin come back to live with her mother and sister.  Surprisingly, there is not much development about the problems their family encounter due to the interracial relationships and off-spring because, for a long time, they manage to pass Elgin off as “Italian.”  Naturally, this causes Elgin a lot of confusion.  It is a welcome explanation of some of his seemingly mysterious attitudes and actions in A Yellow Raft in Blue Water.  It is a twist of irony to learn that the reason Elgin wouldn’t introduce his wife, Christina, to his family is because he let her assume that they were black.  From here the story starts to overlap with the first novel, and goes on to a very satisfying conclusion.

Dorris’s ear for authentic voices and his sympathetic treatment of the flaws of all of these characters makes this a tender and compassionate story that leads the reader to a deeper understanding of the impact that the major themes have on their lives and leaves you yearning for more.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 3 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Cloud Chamber at Simon & Schuster

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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

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About the Author:

Michael DorrisMichael Dorris was born in 1945 of French, Modoc American Indian, and Irish ancestry. He grew up in Kentucky and spent time with his father's family in Tacoma, Washington, and on various reservations in the Pacific Northwest. The first member of his family to attend college, he graduated from Georgetown with honors in English in 1967. Dorris' ancestry led him to ethnographic fieldwork in an Athapaskan village of Tyonek, Alaska. In 1970, he received a Masters in Philosophy degree from Yale and then taught at Franconia College for a year. In 1972, he founded the Native American Studies Program at Dartmouth College and taught there for fifteen years.

He married Louis Erdrich in 1981, whom he met at Dartmouth College, and the two shared a prolific working relationship. Together they raised six children, three of whom were first adopted by Dorris -- in 1971 he was the first single American male to adopt a child -- and three biological children. Dorris almost singlehandedly brought into existence a national movement against fetal alcohol syndrome out of the grief he felt about the damage that had been done to his three adopted children.

Michael Dorris died April 10, 1997 of suicide at the age of 52.

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