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A YELLOW RAFT IN BLUE WATER by Michael Dorris (Holt: $16.95; 343 pp.)

June 21, 1987|Penelope Moffet | Moffet is a Long Beach poet and journalist who's a frequent contributor to The Times.

The three women who move through the pages of "A Yellow Raft in Blue Water," Michael Dorris' spellbinding first novel, are as unlike--and as kindred--as three kinds of fuel in the same fire.

Aunt Ida, eldest of the women, is something like coal in her propensity for harboring hidden heat. Christine, who was raised by Ida (and believes she's Ida's daughter, although she's been taught to call the older woman "aunt"), is more like light wood--she catches fire easily and burns with a high flame--while Christine's daughter Rayona is heavier lumber, slower to kindle, likely to burn longer.

The novel is divided into three sections, one for each of its protagonists. The book opens in Seattle with 15-year-old Rayona visiting her flamboyant mother in the hspital, where years of alcoholism have caught up with her.

Rayona has had a difficult childhood, rootless and apparently with no friends besides her mother, who has moved them often and whose past alcohol-related hospital stays have sometimes landed the girl in foster homes. The self-doubts of any adolescent are, for Rayona, compounded by her inability to fit into any social context outside her relationship with Christine. Even her father is mostly unavailable.

Sixteen years earlier, not long after leaving the unspecified Montana Indian reservation where she was born, Christine had become passionately involved with Elgin, a black veteran who married her before Rayona's birth but soon moved out. Over the years, the couple have periodically reconciled, but the reunions have never lasted long. As the novel opens, Elgin has finally decided to seek a divorce.

The knowledge that Elgin will never return, piled on top of the news that she's seriously ill, sends Christine charging out of the hospital in a stolen candy striper's uniform, determined to end it all by driving off the Tacoma cliff where Rayona was conceived. However, Rayona slows things down by tagging along for the ride and arguing. Then the old Volare runs out of gas just short of the cliff.

Robbed of a melodramatic suicide, knowing she has only about six months' mileage left on her "burned-out" liver and pancreas, Christine decides to take Rayona to Aunt Ida's. Their drive across the country is a drive into both past and future, a remembering of the complex interweaving of lives on the reservation (Christine's brother Lee, who died in Vietnam; Aunt Ida, Lee's friend Dayton) as well as an intimation of the world Rayona can create for herself.

Dorris' writing in this first novel is energetic, understated and seductive. Hooked within a few pages of beginning the book, I found myself getting cranky whenever anyone interrupted me in mid-chapter. The women of "A Yellow Raft" (and in this novel, it's always the women who are most fully realized, even among the supporting characters) are quirky, contrary, real people whose stories become increasingly intriguing.

Who could resist Aunt Ida, who in her solitary old age is more ramrod-stiff and intimidating than ever, who will speak only "Indian" although she knows English, who obsessively watches certain television shows and argues with the characters, who holds the key to all the family secrets but is not about to divulge what she knows?

Or Christine, who receives the news of her impending death by reflecting on "my greatest hits, the K-Tel Christine Taylor album, offered on a late-show commercial: two or three bittersweet C&W cuts of Lee, a rhythm-and-blues section starring Elgin, a war dance for Aunt Ida, and some rock and roll for my teen-age adventures. Rayona was all ballads. That was what I amounted to, my big days revolving on the TV screen like Four Seasons titles."

Or the observant, sardonically self-protective Rayona? Accustomed to being the outsider, she resignedly notes that at the reservation school, "The nuns call the principal where I used to go and find out that I have good grades, that I have potential. They announce this news to the class, and the other students look at me as if I come from Mars. I don't care. I do no work, but the nuns praise me anyway. They read my papers aloud to show how smart I am. They pin my tests to the bulletin board. This wins me no friends."

The novel ends with an apt image, of Ida arranging her hair in "the rhythm of three strands, the whispers of coming and going, of twisting and tying and blending, of catching and letting go, of braiding." Dorris has made an elegant weaving.

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