If this exquisitely crafted novel about two 10-year-old boys on the lam on a river raft has echoes of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” it is still its own solid self.
Set in the beautifully depicted Northwoods of Wisconsin, “Raft of Stars” is not a novel I would naturally gravitate to, considering it sort of a “boy book.” But a novel that captures the struggles in becoming a good man — given the soup of toxic masculinity we have all been swimming in — is worth writing and reading.
Things happen in Andrew J. Graff’s accomplished debut. The pair of boys, called Fish and Bread for short, are inseparable, spending time together in the mid-1990s in the tiny town of Claypot, exploring the natural world on their Huffy bikes. Fish has spent the last three summers in Claypot because his father died. His mother feels her own father, the boy’s grandfather, Teddy, a good man, will be a healing influence.
Bread’s father is a mechanic, and a widower. He beats Bread when he is drunk, like Huck’s father Pap. Fish worries about his friend’s bruises.
The novel opens with a touching scene where the boys rescue hundreds of baby snapping turtles, “like little round stones pushed up by a thaw,” that have lost their way to the marsh and ended up in a cornfield. As Fish observes the turtles, in danger of drying up, he thinks to himself: “Poor damn things. That’s something his grandfather often said when a calf was born a runt and couldn’t eat, or a baby bird had fallen from its nest for the cats to find. The world was full of poor damn things.”
The boys are seen by some townspeople as poor damn things, yet the two feel they are at the center of the world, on the edge of adventure, ripe for change. But when change happens, it is ominous. A gun goes off, and Fish and Bread know something about it. After all, the sky witnessed it. Nature is not mere backdrop here, but a rushing, thrummingly alive presence.
In pursuit of the runaway boys is Teddy, Fish’s grandfather, who is that good man, but tamped down because of his experiences in Korea. Cal, the town’s reluctant sheriff, is also part of the search. He’s a transplant from Houston where he caused some trouble and is questioning whether he belongs in law enforcement. Fish’s mother, Miranda, a Pentecostal, pursues her son with a ferocity that spills into recklessness. Accompanying her is Tiffany, the attendant with purple hair at the Sit & Go gas station, who scribbles poetry on her utility bill envelopes at home. Tiffany also feels on the cusp of change, and the arrival of Cal in town has something to do with her sense of possibility.
Graff writes that Tiffany has been “reading her latest library loan, a book of poems by Emily Dickinson, one about the author’s life compared to a loaded gun, a thing so latent and potent, ready to be lifted from its corner and fill the hills with echoes.”
There are many guns here, guns like the sheriff’s, chosen as he would a favorite dog, but also guns for hunting, guns used to threaten predators with buckshot, and guns that kill and maim. As in life, guns prefigure and alter things, often irreparably.
The boys ingeniously build their raft out of the old cedar from an abandoned poachers’ cabin. They head for the armory, where Fish has led Bread to believe they will find his dad. He’s never confessed his fatherless status to his friend; the image of his father shimmers just out of reach. The struggles the boys experience mirror the struggles the adults have concerning who’s in charge and who is capable.
“Raft of Stars” kept reminding me of a nonfiction book I bought for my son, now 24, when he was 10, called “The Dangerous Book for Boys,” a bestseller first in Britain, then here. The co-authors argue for turning boys loose in the natural world and luring them away from the darker dangers of too much screen time. It offered a somewhat romantic view of childhood, based on its authors’ own.
This novel is set in the lush northern Wisconsin where Graff himself grew up, and it is in some ways equally romantic, but also compellingly real. And the art and craft of this narrative, apparent from the first page with its sublime constellations of images, offers brutal beauty, the glinting edge of truth, and the possibility of redemption for the fifth-grade boys, and also for the adults chasing them.
Finding their way through the thick, gnarled woods and along the perilous river, both children and adults show they can transcend the thicket of confusion surrounding their personal circumstances and emerge toward more clarity, proving they all are more than just “poor damn things.”
Jeffrey Ann Goudie is a freelance writer and book critic.
RAFT OF STARS
By Andrew J. Graff
304 pages, Ecco, $26.99