June 01, 1987 12:00 PM

by Michael Dorris

Three women—Rayona, her mother, Christine, and her grandmother, Aunt Ida—serve as narrators for this first novel, which takes place mostly on an Indian reservation in Montana. It begins with 15-year-old Rayona visiting her mother in a hospital where she sees her father, a black postman who is rarely around. Christine leaves the hospital and takes Rayona home to big, silent Aunt Ida. The dark-skinned Rayona is a curiosity to everyone, but she believes she is unwanted and runs away to her first job, picking up trash in a national park. Later Rayona has a moment of triumph at a rodeo, and Christine takes over the novel to tell the story of her life, one of early disillusionment with Catholicism, with traveling fast, too many men, alcohol, then true love and the death of her beloved younger brother whom she had shamed into going to Vietnam. The last part of the book is told by Aunt Ida, who reveals an incredible past that has gone into making these three generations of women remarkably strong and powerful. Dorris, who teaches at Dartmouth, is married to Louise Erdrich, author of Love Medicine and The Beet Queen. Both of them write about a world of the American Indian that seems to have been hidden. Each describes the other as a collaborator, but there are differences in their writing styles. Erdrich is capable of leaping into the surreal, into mythlike scenes to create startling moments. Dorris is lighter, resorting to slapstick on occasion. But A Yellow Raft earns admiration from first page to last. It is suspenseful, constantly gripping, original in its characters and settings and, finally, profoundly moving. (Holt, $16.95)

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