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Book Review: Raft of Stars by Andrew J. Graff

“We’re not just poor damn things. Even if it feels true, it’s not the truth. There’s more to us, more for us, right now, right here, in this.”

Ten-year-old Fischer (Fish) Branson has spent the past three summers on his Grandpa Teddy’s farm learning about responsibility and survival. He’s learned how to hunt and fish, how to properly sharpen a knife, how to start a campfire with a flint, and how to fire a shotgun. Fish’s best friend, Dale (Bread) Breadwin, often helps out at the farm during the summers, and finds solace in his times of exploration and adventure with Fish. When readers first meet Fish and Bread, they are attempting to save a mass of misguided baby snapping turtles who need redirection in order to find safety near the water’s edge. While reflecting on the potential harm caused by full-grown snapping turtles, the pair of ten-year-olds can’t help but feel compassion for these “poor damn things” who just need a fair chance in life – much like Bread.

Fish wants desperately to protect Bread from the regular injuries he sustains at the hand of his often-drunken father, begging him to stay one more night with him and his grandpa at the farm. Bread, however, knows he’s already stayed away from home one night too many. He must go home. After walking his buddy to the quiet, mean-looking, paint-chipped house, Fish decides that he can’t leave Bread in danger anymore and returns to Bread’s home with a loaded shotgun in hand. Believing that Mr. Breadwin lay dead on his kitchen floor, the boys make a run for it. They quickly gather supplies from Grandpa Teddy’s barn and are determined to live in the wild to avoid jail. They were murderers.

Sheriff Cal, formerly from Texas, knows nothing about the backwoods of  Wisconsin or survival in the wild. He allows Grandpa Teddy to guide him in his search for the boys before they find themselves in greater danger such as coyotes, or bears, or something worse. Soon after they head into the woods, Fish’s mom Miranda and new friend Tiffany take a different path to find her son. They head out on the river in a canoe, Miranda instructing Tiffany on proper paddling techniques, attempting to make up for lost time by using a more direct path. Both search parties face internal and external barriers in their race to save the young boys.

Andrew J. Graff vividly sets the scene for the readers, using intense detail and care when describing the obstacles faced by each pair of sojourners. It was easy to feel the hailstones as they beat down on the boys in the raft on the open water, or to feel Sheriff Cal’s soggy wet-socked foot as he walked along shore with only one boot. Characters are crafted with heart and intention, bringing the story to life. Each triumph and setback are equally paired in their balance of survival.

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“Here was this river rooting for them, saying in a voice so much quieter than the storm – Come this way. There is more. Fish felt the same odd comfort he felt when his mom prayed, a warmth within the cold.”

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Throughout the novel there is a subtle religious undertone, sourced through Fish’s mom, Miranda, who is known for her dedication to and trust in God. Given this religious undertone, I can’t help but associate the names of the main character’s, Bread and Fish, with the Bible story about Jesus feeding the five loaves of bread and two fishes to a multitude of people on a hillside. The lesson within that Bible story is one of compassion for people in need. Additionally, a “fish” has been used in various Bible stories as a symbol of deliverance. Graff cleverly weaves these religious themes in this coming-of-age novel as two young boys, two grown men, and two grown women come to terms with the various obstacles in their lives and decisions yet to be made.

Raft of Stars by Andrew J. Graff

Literary Fiction | 304 pages

Published by Harper Collins

*Advanced Reader Copy (ARC) provided by NetGalley. Quotes used in this review are from the ARC and may read differently in the published copy, coming March 23, 2021.

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