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Cloud Chamber

A Novel

About The Book

Ten years after his "dazzling" (San Francisco Chronicle) bestselling debut novel, A Yellow Raft in Blue Water, Michael Dorris returns to the family at the core of that work to write the rich score of the "full-blown, complex opera of his new novel, Cloud Chamber" (Robb Forman Dew).

Opening in late nineteenth century Ireland and moving to Kentucky and finally to the high plains of Montana, Cloud Chamber tells the extraordinary tale of Rose Mannion and her descendants. Over a period of more than one hundred years, Rose's legacy of love and betrayal is passed down from generation to generation until it meets the promise of reconciliation in Rayona, the indomitable part Black, part Native American teenage girl at the center of A Yellow Raft in Blue Water.

Cloud Chamber is truly a tour de force, a powerful, rich tale about the energy and persistence of love.

Reading Group Guide

Reading Group Discussion Points

  1. In the first chapter, titled "The Dark Snake," Rose says, " hair's fine blackness was my signature." When Rose finds out that Andrew has been killed, she says, "With each name I removed from my coiled hair a silver clip, and before it was done the famous braid hung below my waist, its weight pulling at the back of my neck." And after the jury trial for Andrew's damages ends, Rose's black hair turns gold and she decides to cover her head with a shawl. Why does Dorris place so much emphasis on Rose's hair? What does her hair symbolize? What does it represent to her? In relation to the themes of the novel, what is the symbolic meaning of her hair turning gold and of her decision to cover her head?
  2. Rose betrays Gerry to defend her country and thus loses the love of her life. She also betrays her son Robert to defend the honor of her other son Andrew. What does she defend in making these choices? What does she sacrifice? Why do you think she makes these choices, and what do they reveal about her character? Do you agree with her choices or at least understand them?
  3. When Martin decides to serve the cause and help capture Gerry, he describes himself as a "vessel for information." When he arrives in Kentucky, he takes a job as a cartman. He says, "I'll be a cartman...the link between those who do not want something and those who do." In light of his relationship with his wife Bridie, is Martin right to see himself in the role of vessel and cartman? For what is his being always the middleman a metaphor?
  4. Dorris entitles Robert's first chapter "Broken Things." Name all the things materially, spiritually, emotionally, and psychologically that are broken in the chapter. How do they relate to Robert? Robert marries a woman who does not treat him with love. He says it's as if "I had gone and married my mother." In what ways does history repeat itself in his situation with Bridie? How is his marriage to Bridie similar to his mother's marriage with his father? How are Rose and Bridie alike?
  5. Both Martin and Robert are vessels. Robert says, "...poison of that awareness had hollowed me out." Both are left empty by different things and in different ways. Describe the differences and similarities lar, ties of their condition. Why is it appropriate that Robert literally and figuratively disappears (with TB and amnesia) in relation to the situation in which he finds himself in his life?
  6. Robert says, "Memory is paradise denied. The garden was not the same lived as when recalled, and only when the gates forever close does the view between their bars achieve a true perspective." Given his amnesia, what does this mean to Robert—to the novel as a whole? Is he a prisoner of memory? If so, how? For what is his amnesia a metaphor? In the novel, Robert's memory comes back, but he pretends that it hasn't. What is the significance of Robert concealing his regained memory?
  7. In Cloud Chamber, Edna contemplates becoming a nun, but ultimately decides against taking the vow. Why does she want to become a nun, and why does she ultimately decide against it? What is the reason that Edna never marries? In the sanitarium, she finds a soul mate in Naomi. What does Naomi represent to her?
  8. Edna says about romance, "Where would it get me...would it get me a new life?" Yet Marcella believes that it would. What does their different relationship to romance suggest about their characters? When Marcella falls in love with Earl, she says that it is love that has made her better. If love has made her better, did a lack of love make her, Edna, and Robert sick? Even though Marcella does marry and have a child, both she and Edna end up living at home with their mother. What similarities in their characters make this possible?
  9. When Edna and Marcella revisit the sanitarium, they hold hands, and when Edna admits that she loved Naomi, she thinks to herself, "The mention of the word love, a word that never passed either of our lips...wakes us up, reminds us that we are making contact with each others skin, a circumstance we avoid at all costs. Simultaneously, we drop our connection." Why is the word "love" never spoken between Edna and Marcella, and why do they avoid physical contact?
  10. Elgin feels "isolated...gagged" and "stifled in the limited range of emotions [that the women sanction] so wrapped in protective plastic." He asks his mother, "Who are we protecting?" She replies, "We're protecting me. And you. And Mama. And Edna." Why do the women keep their emotions under wraps? From what do they feel they must protect each other and Elgin? When Elgin marries Christine, he doesn't let his mother meet or even talk to his wife. Why?
  11. At the beginning of the novel, there are many references made to chains and walls. Images of being trapped abound in Cloud Chamber. Dorris describes Martin as a "boy rattling around in a full grown gathered within the walls for to heaven and bound on all sides by crumbling stone...far side the piled stone walls of our enslavement." What are some of the different associations that walls and stones have in the story? How do these relate to the themes of the novel? How do the images of things being "trapped" relate to the situation that Rose, Martin, and the people of Ireland find themselves in?
  12. Throughout the novel, religion is a frequent subject. The women are always praying or doing rosary. What role does religion play in their lives? What do the rituals of religion represent to them? Is faith important to them? Does it have any real impact on their lives? If so, in what way or ways?
  13. In Cloud Chamber all the characters have secrets and tell lies to themselves and to other people. What are some of these lies and secrets? How do the lies and secrets of one generation affect the lives of their descendants? Dorris writes, "The dead are never really quite gone. The influence of their deeds and personalities is always pushing us and nudging us one way or the other." How does the past bring the generations together? How does it separate them?
  14. Dorris spends a great deal of time at the end of the novel describing Rayona rollerblading. Why does he do this? In the end, with Rayona, is the chain of history broken or preserved? If so, how? Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Can we ever break the chains of the past? If so, how? If not, why not? Concerning the past, what does Dorris intimate is the best we can hope for? The worst?

Recommended Readings
Accordina Crimes
E. Annie Proulx
Angela's Ashes
Frank McCourt
Bucking the Sun
Ivan Doig
The Country Girl's Trilogy
Edna O'Brien
East of Eden
John Steinbeck
Flesh and Blood
Michael Cunningham
The Greek Tragedies
Look Homeward, Angel
Thomas Wolfe
The Moor's Last Sigh
Salman Rushdie
Moses Supposes
Ellen Currie
The Short Stories of Frank O'Connor

The Surface of the Earth
Reynolds Price
James Joyce

About The Author

Michael Dorris (1945–1997) was the author of Cloud ChamberA Yellow Raft in Blue Water, The Crown of Columbus, coauthored with Louise Erdrich, and the story collection Working Men. Among his nonfiction works are The Broken Cord, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, and a collection of essays, Paper Trail. 

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (January 29, 1998)
  • Length: 320 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780684835358

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Raves and Reviews

Anne Lamott Cloud Chamber is Michael Dorris at his very best: poignant, heartbreaking, funny, lyrical, honest, smart and compassionate.

Oscar Hijuelos Like its very title, Cloud Chamber is a novel that enwraps the reader in a kind of prose-induced dream; it is a beautiful and luminous book, with a narrative that not only steadily entertains, but that continually enlightens and rewards.

Ursula Hegi The range of Michael Dorris's vision has always been impressive. His fiction is imaginative and perceptive, filled with wisdom and sensitivity. Cloud Chamber is an absorbing and insightful novel about courage, love, perseverance and -- above all -- the complex choices we all make without realizing how they will affect future generations.

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