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The protagonists of the story are Rayona, Ida and Christine.
There is no single antagonist although the other characters are at times antagonistic in their reactions with the three. The only person who is a continual reminder of bitterness and injustice is Clara, and only Ida knows about her. The primary conflict is thus the inability of the three women to come to an understanding with themselves and with each other. The driving force of the story is that each of the three women feels that she has been treated unjustly by one of the other two.
The resolution is in the act of telling of each person’s individual story, a telling which is inevitably entwined with the details of the remaining stories. The key to true understanding lies in Ida, in her own self sacrifice and life long burden of a terrible secret, which has grown calluses on her love for Christine. Furthermore, she blames Christine for the wartime loss of her only son Lee.
The climax is reached in each woman’s story as she tells her side of the events from her earliest memory to the moment in time that brings them together, the pending death of Christine. Although it is not explicitly stated, the reader knows that Ida will reveal her dark secret to Rayona and that a new understanding, symbolized by the image of Ida braiding her hair at the end, will be reached.
SHORT PLOT/CHAPTER SUMMARY (Synopsis)
The plot structure of Yellow Raft in Blue Water could be said to begin with the end, as Rayona tells her story first, then her mother, and finally Ida, moving backward in time. Yet, each character retells some of the same events preventing the structure from being strictly linear.
It is important to recognize that this novel was written by a Native American Indian; contemporary Native American writers regard story telling, plot structure and characterization in a different way and often transform these traditional elements. Plots are often circular or spiraling rather than linear, and characters seek relationships and understandings beyond the individual psyche rather than engaging in the familiar inward self-seeking so common in many American novels.
This novel is an excellent example of a plot structure, which has been compared by some to an onion. Each character, beginning with the youngest, provides the details of her story, pealing back the layers for the next character until we arrive at the very core and must find out what it is that Ida knows and why she is so adamant about having her daughter and granddaughter call her "Aunt Ida."
Part I is Rayona’s story. After preventing her mother from committing suicide, Rayona rides with her from Seattle back to the reservation in Montana. There Christine is planning to move in with Aunt Ida. However, when they arrive, Christine and Ida have words, and Christine runs off, leaving Rayona in Ida’s care. Rayona does not know how to relate to Ida and eventually runs away herself, finding a summer job at Bearpaw Lake State Park. Although she lies about her identity, she is eventually discovered, and her hosts, Evelyn and Sky, take her back to the reservation where she will find her mother and grandmother again.
Part II is Christine’s story. She describes her teen years, especially her affection for her brother Lee and her manipulation that pushed him into the military to fight in Vietnam. Christine leaves the reservation for work in Seattle where she meets Elgin, an African American she marries and with whom she has Rayona. Elgin is not a faithful husband, but until Christine’s final trip to the Seattle hospital, he manages to show up at just the right time. The two live their own lives as if they were on opposite sides of a mountain ridge with every now and then a pass that allows them to connect for a few days of family life and some steamy, romantic evenings. Christine has an opportunity to introduce the family to baby Rayona when she makes the trip to her brother Lee’s funeral after his death in Vietnam. She realizes, however, that the family, including Ida, blame her for Lee’s death; Christine returns to Seattle with no intention of going back to the reservation. Her illness changes that as she must find provision for Rayona. Elgin is not a possibility, so the only choice is to take Rayona to Ida. Of course, Rayona does not realize that this is Christine’s intent, nor does she understand the degree of her mother’s illness.
After leaving Rayona, Christine renews her relationship with her childhood friend Dayton. She lives with him in a purely platonic relationship as her health gradually diminishes. Rayona and Ida meet up with her there.
Part III is Ida’s story. Her childhood was one of turmoil as her mother was bedridden and dying, and her father had to struggle with caring for his wife while holding down a job. Annie suggests having her younger sister Clara stay with them to take over the nursing duties. Lecon accepts the idea, and the problems are temporarily eased. However, Clara is young and pretty, and she and Lecon soon succumb to each other’s charms. Clara becomes pregnant.
To avoid bringing shame on the family, Lecon suggests that Clara should go away to have the baby, but that Ida-whom everyone knows has a crush on Willard Pretty Dog-could claim the baby is hers. Everyone would assume Willard was the father, and Lecon and Clara would be saved the disgrace. Ida agrees to it, and she and Clara go away to a convent together until after the child is born. Clara, who is supposed to return to actually care for the child in the home, allows Ida to return to the reservation with the baby. Although she promises she will follow as soon as she is well enough, she does not return for four years. When she does show up, it is with the intention of taking Christine and selling her. Ida has taught the child to call her "Aunt Ida" and has tried to keep a wall between herself and Christine simply because she believed Clara would show up and take the child away at some point. Yet, she loves the baby deeply and plots with Father Hurlburt who produces a document, which declares that Ida is the child’s mother. Sometime later Ida gives birth to Lee who actually is Willard Pretty Dog’s son.
When Ida sees Rayona, she holds her and quietly fusses over her, not unlike any normal grandmother. It is Rayona’s disappearance (explained by the shady Father Tom as a return to Seattle) that finally drives Ida to visit Dayton and confront Christine about Rayona.