Book review: Raft of Stars by Andrew J. Graff

(cover image courtesy Harper Collins Australia)

In its usual state of busyness and activity, it is easy to think that your life is exactly where it’s meant to be.

After all, who, in the pell-mell rush to get life done ever really has the time to stop and consider what it is they really want from life and then act on it; for most of us, life is a series of constantly agitating niggling feelings of disquiet that nibble away at any semblance of existential contentment but in the chaos of living, don’t really make their presence felt in any kind of way that has the capacity to change us or alter our trejactory.

So, we have no real choice but to hang on for dear life and hope we have made right choices or we have dealt with past events in a healthy, life-affirming way.

But in Andrew J. Graff’s warmly affecting novel, Raft of Stars, a traumatic moment in time sends seismic surges through a number of people in the small northern Wisconsin town of Claypot, forcing them to deal with long put aside issues and reckon with the festering issues long-dormant but never fully quiet in their lives.

The catalyst for this great reckoning is the shooting of the abusive father of a young boy called Dale Breadwin aka Bread by his best friend Fischer aka Fish who spends his summers in Claypot with his maternal grandfather, a successful attempt by Fish’s mother Miranda to help her son deal with the grief at his father’s death.

“Some days the boys made a game of dreaming up ways to rid Bread of his old man. They sunk the man in the marsh once. Another time they tied him up in raspberry bushes and let black bears get him. They ran him down with countless trucks and tractors, and they once buried him up to his neck in an anthill they found behind the barn. The game was a way of deadening the blows of Bread’s real life.” (P. 5)

These two young boys, for all their shared trauma – while the type of trauma is different in one sense, with one ongoing, the other point in time, it has the same devastating effect on them – are alive with the dreams and excitable fantasies shared by all children, the kind of endlessly malleable hope that knows the world can be bad but clings to the idea that things can change.

But after dropping Bread off one night, Fish is compelled to go back to his friend’s house, only to witness him being pummelled and attacked by his father in a way that seems far worse than anything Bread has described to this point.

He acts instinctively, drawing on the gun skills taught to him by his farming grandfather and shoots Bread’s dad, supposedly dead.

Frightened by what’s happened in the blink of an eye, the two boys flee the scene and after pitstops to gather supplies, head into the wildness of the forest north of Claypot, to rendezvous with Fish’s dad at a military base on the other side of dense trees and wild, unfettered waterways.

Fish, of course, knows his dad is nowhere at all, least of all at a military base but he’s making things up literally on the run and he figures he can deal with any resulting issues of his deception when the time comes.

Andrew J. Graff (image courtesy Harper Collins Publishers)

While the boys go on the lam, emboldened by fantasies of living rough and wild and fleeing justice – secretly they feel scared and alone but they’re ten and the idea of telling each other seems beyond their comprehension – a number of adults set out in pursuit, all of them needing to get the boys back safely for a whole host of different reasons.

While that alone makes for a poignant storyline that’s informed by rich characterisation and a gift for infusing action with humanity, Graff uses this journey into the wilderness for the likes of the local sheriff, Fish’s mum and grandfather, and the local gas station attendant Tiffany to examine the great yawning gulf between what our lives are and what that might be and how a traumatic moment in time can set in train life-changing ruminations in ways we don’t see coming.

There is a great power and naturalness to this aspect of this impressively told book precisely because the great wrestling with life truths that takes place in pursuit of Bread and Fish, and for the boys themselves, all feels so very natural.

It makes perfect sense that in the days spent riding on horseback through near-impenetrable forest or fording through river rapids of fearsome intensity there would be plenty of time to talk and think and to wonder what it is you want from life.

What is even more impressive about Raft of Stars is that this big, epic story, which across multiple lives and an expansively wild environment, never feels less than intensely, beautifully intimate.

“Fish felt accusation rise in his heart, guilt, shame. He closed his eyes and opened them. Forget it, he told himself. At least for now. That’s something his mom used to tell him when he couldn’t sleep and worried about not sleeping. You have permission to forget it, she’d tell him. Just for a minute, just enjoy your pillow, just rest, let it go. Close your eyes and sail away from troubles on a raft made of stars. And then she’d pray and hum. (P. 136)

We take a moving deep dive into the lives of people who assumed their lives would always be one way only to find that even after many years life can surprise you, which is big any way you slice it, but Graff uses his superlative talent to take us closely and affectingly deep into their hearts and minds in a way that is utterly beguiling, keeping you flipping the pages with alacrity.

The race to find the boys before they reach a deadly point of no-return is arresting there is no doubt and compelling at every turn, but it’s what happens while that is taking place is what really informs the heart and soul of Raft of Stars which is so boundlessly human and rawly honest that you are drawn to it in a profound way.

Every last one of the characters is perfectly wrought, their pain and loss clearly evident but so too their need for redemption and change, hope burning eternally eternally for them despite all evidence to the contrary.

Raft of Stars is a beautifully rich novel, one that understands that big moments in our lives never happen in isolation.

They always come with in life-changing ripples aplenty, either in the moment or later on, and Graff captures these in a truly wonderful way, giving Raft of Stars an emotional accessibility and truthfulness that will stay with you long after the final page, impressing on you over and over that change is possible in life and should be sought but that it will always confound you with the way in manifests and in the way your life looks when all the dust, or in this case, torrential water, has settled.

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