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The plot of this novel utilizes the multi-narrative structure typical of many American Indian stories. It also, typically, minimizes the concept of protagonist, presenting, instead of a single protagonist, a trio of women who are all looking for the same thing. Furthermore, none of them finds acceptance or identity by leaving, but rather by returning to the reservation. This too is a typical American Indian outlook. To an Indian, departure is only a temporary quest; those who find true meaning in life find it in the community to which they belong. A successful return is more to be applauded than the hero in isolation.
The movement in many American Indian novels has been described as circular, the events returning to the same point at which they began. Another critic has described the structure of many Indian novels in general as similar to an onion. The novel is composed of several different stories, each story a layer on the onion. As each story is "peeled" off, the reader comes closer to motivation for that particular group of stories, discovering, in the process, the relationships among all the stories. Looking at a novel in this light has the advantage of changing our expectations. We arenít waiting for a single protagonist to emerge as some sort of overcoming hero or heroine, but rather are looking for the reason for the act of story telling itself. Thus, Rayonaís story begins with her motherís illness-which Rayona has not yet accepted-and returns to reservation where her mother will die.
Rayona tells her story in present tense, a strategy indicating that the present is all she has since she has not been given either her motherís or her auntís stories. Christineís story is told in past tense and begins with her relationship with her brother Lee and other childhood and teenage memories. The story returns to the reservation, meeting Rayona both physically and emotionally at the same point that Rayona ends her own story. Idaís story moves back deeper into history for the layer that no one has yet seen. She is the one who can tell of Christineís true identity as well as Leeís. She can give the true motivating factors for everything that happened. As with Christine, Ida begins with her own childhood. And although we know that she too will become part of Christineís last days at Daytonís house, Ida ends with the point at which Christine began-the loss of faith for Christine. This seems to be the point at which Ida, Lee and Christine began to head in different directions. Thus it is fitting that the priest finds Ida braiding her hair, symbolically holding all the strands together.
Another element that is subtly worked into the plot is the journey motif. Many Indian tribes practiced the vision quest in which a young person went into the wilderness alone and subjected him or herself to physical hardship in the hopes of receiving a vision or message that would provide proof of adult status and direction for the community. Many Indian novelists make use of the pattern of leaving, suffering and returning in their stories and Michael Dorris is not exception.
Rayonaís journey is presented first; abandoned by her mother, running from her aunt, and dumped by the priest, she could not be more alone. Furthermore, she does not even return to Seattle where she might have had contact with former friends. She spends a night alone on the railroad tracks, makes up a story to hide her true identity, then makes a small but significant success of herself at the campsite. Although it is not her idea to return to the reservation, she seems to recognize that the home of her mother and family really is home for her too.
Christineís journey begins first with her move to Paulineís house, but then to Seattle. There she works a series of jobs, looking for one that she wants to keep for awhile. The only time she asks a favor of anyone is in relation to Lee. She wants Elgin to have the power to keep Lee alive; although she loves Elgin passionately, the failure of the marriage is no doubt related to Elginís inability to provide Christineís needs in relation to Lee. When Christine returns home, she tries to go to Ida first, but ends up instead with her brotherís best friend.
Idaís journey begins with a physical journey and ended as an emotional/psychological one. She goes to Denver with Clara to cover for her and take responsibility for the baby. But when Ida returns to the reservation, it is to a life of failed dreams and self sacrifice. Her journey will end only when she is able to tell the truth about both Christine and Lee. When Ida is able to drop the shield of aloofness and reveal the massiveness of her great heart of love, the journeys for the other women will have ended as well.