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Novel Cast Michael Dorris Blends Cultures And History In Latest Work

TUESDAY, JAN. 14, 1997

Considering the varied nature of his bloodline, writer Michael Dorris likely hasn’t surprised anyone by filling his new novel with a virtual Rainbow Coalition cast of characters.

Not to mention a wide assortment of place settings and time periods.

Dorris, an award-winning writer who will read from his book “Cloud Chamber” at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Auntie’s Bookstore, is a virtual international community unto himself.

Note the following:

His family tree includes branches of both Native American (Modoc) and European (French and Irish) heritage.

Though Dorris was born and raised in Louisville, Ky., he spent much of his boyhood in both Washington and Idaho (he still has relatives in such towns as Plummer, Coeur d’Alene, Spokane and Tacoma), and he now lives in New Hampshire.

He co-writes with his novelist wife, Louise Erdrich (the best-selling novel “The Crown of Columbus,” etc.), and he is comfortable working in the voice of either sex - as exemplified both by his critically acclaimed first novel, “A Yellow Raft In Blue Water,” and now by “Cloud Chamber.”

Like many writers, Dorris’ artistic quest involves self-definition. By exploring the life struggles of his characters, he discovers things about himself. Yet his search, which arguably covers a wider area than most of his peers, is further complicated by the fluid nature of contemporary American culture.

Self-examination, Dorris said during a recent phone interview, is “a central question for me.” But, he added, “it’s a question that never gets answered because we’re dynamic. We’re both who we are genetically and who we are as a product of our ongoing influences.”

“Cloud Chamber” is a good example of how everyday influences, not to mention the power of genetics, affect all of us. The novel begins in Ireland and ends in Montana. It comprises such characters as an 17-year-old Irish girl, an African American male grocer and a Native American teenager named Rayona (who originally appeared in “A Yellow Raft In Blue Water”).

Maybe most important, it spans a century’s worth of family lineage to show how this blend of forces shapes all of us. Furthermore, it uncovers the price we pay while undergoing that transformation.

“To me, at its most arrogantly ambitious, the book is sort of about the makeup of America,” Dorris said. The twist, he stresses, is that the process is revealed in reverse. “Instead of Indians assimilating, it’s Europeans coming to America, turning black, turning Indian. At the end, as Rayona says, they (the members of her family) are her own personal Rainbow Coalition.”

The novel’s climactic moment involves Rayona’s family gathering around her six months after her mother has died (the event which marked the end of “Yellow Raft”). Their purpose is to witness Rayona’s naming ceremony, a coming-of-age event in which the girl adopts an “extra” name.

“It’s like when you get to a certain age, you get to become … yourself,” Rayona explains.

It’s no coincidence, then, that the name her father asks Rayona to take is Rose - the name of her great-great-grandmother, the same 17-year-old Irish girl whose story opens the book. In this way, Dorris brings his novel full circle.

The kind of intense self-study it takes to write such a book would seem to be not unlike psychotherapy. And while this may be true, writing fiction is actually fun for Dorris - especially when opposed to the alternative, the non-fiction for which he also is known.

He’s hard at work on a sequel-of-sorts to “The Broken Cord,” the book that detailed his experiences as the adoptive father of a boy suffering from fetal alcohol syndrome and which was honored by the National Book Critics Circle as Best Non-Fiction of 1989. The new book, tentatively titled “Matter of Conscience,” studies the detrimental effect that alcohol use can have on any fetus no matter how far the pregnancy has advanced.

It isn’t a book Dorris wanted to write. Instead, it is a book he felt compelled to write after being told stories of doctors who, even now, are advising pregnant women that drinking alcohol is OK.

“These were very esteemed doctors who told them that they should drink a bottle of Chianti every night if the baby was late,” he said. “I was shocked.

“So that’s why I’m doing it. And may it be the very last time that I visit the subject.”

For Dorris, fiction - even fiction rooted in the dysfunctional traditions of the modern American family - offers the promise of self-fulfilling prophecy.

“You’re more in control,” he said. “I can make a happy ending if I want to.”

As many as he wants, in fact.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo

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