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The major theme of the novel is the overcoming strength of mother-daughter-grandmother love. For Rayona it is understanding her own mother as well as Aunt Ida. Understanding comes in knowing what Ida did for them all and how much she sacrificed.
Another important theme is survival, not so much as a specific Indian group or tribe (Rayona herself is half black) but as a community who will stick by each other when it becomes truly important to do so.
Lesser Themes involve secretism, betrayal and shattered dreams that are broken but never quite surrendered.
The mood is slightly different in each section of the story as one might expect with three different narrators. Rayona’s story is told with a touch of defiance and self-preservation. Christine’s story is one of urgency, of living on borrowed time and finding it necessary to accomplish something in the time remaining to her. Once she moves in with Dayton, however, that urgency disappears.
Ida’s story is mysterious, yet matter of fact and free of guilt. One is never really sure she will tell Rayona what really happened all those years ago, but we believe she will because of her love for her. Ida’s voice is matter-of-fact with a quiet power, like one who has finally decided to tell something that no one else has ever known, something that would have changed her life if she had told the secret at the time it happened.
BACKGROUND INFORMATION - BIOGRAPHY
Michael Anthony Dorris was born on January 30, 1945 in Louisville, Kentucky. His parents were Jim and Mary Besy Dorris. He was part Modoc Indian (his father's side) and grew up on reservations in Kentucky and Montana. As a child he spent a lot of time with his father’s family in Tacoma, Washington and on various reservations in the Pacific Northwest. His mother and his aunt raised him after his father’s premature death. He was the first member of his family to attend college. He graduated from Georgetown University with honors in English and received his Masters degree in Philosophy from Yale in 1970. In 1972 he founded the Native American Studies Program at Dartmouth College, where he taught off and on 25 plus years.
He was the first single American man to adopt a child and in 1981 he married novelist. Louise Erdrich, whom he met while teaching at Dartmouth, and together they raised six children. One of his books A Broken Cord (1989) tells the story of their adoption of Alan, a baby with fetal alcohol syndrome and the struggles they went through to give the child a normal home.
He is praised for his sensitive treatment of Native American problems and concerns. He has written numerous essays, nonfiction books and novels, some of them collaborated with Louise. He also published under pen name Milou North in collaboration with his wife.
A Yellow Raft In Blue Water (1987) was his first novel and was a best-seller. It was highly regarded as an outstanding debut work and has been praised by critics.
Dorris’s books are often about family, survival and trust.
Dorris had endured a very hard family life, in 1991 his adopted son Abel died, two of his adopted daughters said that he had sexually abused them and another son took him to court and used threats to try and get money and his manuscript published. Additionally, he and his wife were having problems. Though they had not yet divorced, they faced a difficult legal settlement dealing with child custody, property, publishing contracts and royalties. He ultimately committed suicide in a hotel room in Concord, New Hampshire on April 10, 1997 by suffocating himself with a plastic bag.
works by Michael Dorris: