Cloud Chamber

Elizabeth Judd reviews Michael Dorris' novel "Cloud Chamber".

Published January 20, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

"Cloud Chamber" attempts to cash in on the winning formula that Michael Dorris established in his bestselling "A Yellow Raft in Blue Water." It's similar to the one that runs through the novels of his sometime writing partner, Louise Erdrich. Once again, Dorris tells the story of a mixed-race family via a succession of strong-willed, eccentric-but-supposedly-loveable first-person narrators. Leaving nothing to chance, Dorris even resurrects Rayona Taylor, the popular heroine of "A Yellow Raft." Dorris' shameless reliance on formula is irritating, and I found myself vowing to resist the familiar charms of "Cloud Chamber." By the halfway point, however, I'd succumbed; no new literary ground is broken here, but "Cloud Chamber" kept me turning the pages.

Dorris needs just five degrees of separation -- in his case, five generations within one family -- to carry us from Rose Mannion, a nineteenth-century Irish girl who flees to America after betraying her turncoat lover, to Rayona Taylor, a part-black teenager who was raised on an American Indian reservation and now works at Kentucky Fried Chicken. Dorris isn't coy about his central message: No matter how racially or temperamentally different family members may seem, they reflect and refract a shared history and character worth preserving. When Rayona is given a cut-glass vase of Galway crystal that once belonged to Rose Mannion, Rayona sees in it "a thousand faces, each different from the rest." Lest anyone miss the point, Dorris bombards the reader with this crystal vessel metaphor -- invoking it on the first and last pages -- to represent family heritage as fragile and multi-faceted.

"Cloud Chamber" doesn't venture into original territory until Dorris introduces Rayona's maiden great-aunt Edna McGarry. Edna is an unassuming supporting player who's distinguished by the depth of her insight and the intensity of her loyalty and love. Lacking the exotic history or flamboyant personality of the typical Dorris heroine, Edna is the prime mover that quietly keeps the family together. It is Edna who Rayona identifies with and who prompts Rayona to realize that "being a family is a voluntary duty. We're none of us here against our will." Although Edna is nobody's idea of an electrifying character, her appearance elevates otherwise tepid material into something far more nuanced and surprising. Ultimately, Dorris wins you over only when he deviates from his trusty formula.

By Elizabeth Judd

Elizabeth Judd lives in Washington. Her work has appeared in the Village Voice and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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