[Graff] wants to unravel some of the expectations of the genre. Nature, here, isn’t impressed with masculinity at all, and it’s prepared to smash machismo against its rocks along with anything else ... Before it delves into any of that, though, Raft of Stars comes on like an updated Huck Finn tale ... And though Stars isn’t an outright tragedy, there’s little in the way that feels triumphant. Mostly what the woods and river do are flatten our humanity into pure survival mode ... Graff writes exquisitely about the wilderness, both its dangers and the way its freedoms enchant the novel’s two prepubescent leads — the joy they find in building a raft and escaping capture is palpable ... Graff recognizes that his main job is to deliver a gripping adventure tale, which the concluding chapters offer plenty of — dangerous rapids leading to life-threatening waterfalls, menacing black bears and coyotes ... Untamed nature is bad news for humanity in general. But it’s always good news for adventure stories.
Andrew J. Graff’s engrossing, largehearted debut novel, Raft of Stars, is a book with a distinctly Rousseauian vibe ... Graff, who is a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, depicts his battle-scarred heroes with knowing generosity. In spare and unpretentious prose, he shows how their hard lives have left them wary and emotionally knotted ... It is moments of quiet liberation [...] — not the rapid-fire action sequences, of which there are many — that quickened my pulse most.
... [an] accomplished debut ... Nature is not mere backdrop here, but a rushing, thrummingly alive presence ... This novel is...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 ... 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.'
... a dark, heart-pounding adventure ... Told in shifting viewpoints, some of the novel's dialogue landed awkwardly; similarly, the subtle supernatural elements felt forced and the conclusion overly convenient as the book wrapped up too quickly. The climax, though, was perfect. I audibly gasped at least four different times as the final cogs of the plot slid into place ... Graff captures the pure connection between friends on the cusp of adulthood, struggling to love parents with sometimes-unforgivable imperfections, and the world created by his powerful, thrumming style is not so much a setting as it is a star-shot forest dreamscape of cedar trees, prowling coyotes, and sun-bleached scarecrows made of bone.
... impressive ... a steady parceling out of plot points to keep the story moving ... [Graff's] background as a hunter and a hiker gives him plenty of raw material to make the natural trials faced by Fish and Bread and their trackers realistic and, at times, harrowing ... Sprinkled through the book are the religious overtones you might expect when the main characters are called Bread and Fish, but Graff wisely doesn’t go overboard with them. Raft of Stars has a happyish ending, tying up a lot of loose ends in a way that readers may find a little too pat and implausible. But his outdoors expertise enriches the narrative to the point that, in the end, you’ll be glad that most situations turn out just fine.
Can a pair of 10-year-old boys actually build a raft by themselves with nothing but a knife and lumber from an abandoned shed? ... a reader may ask while reading Andrew J. Graff’s fine debut novel, Raft of Stars, which begins gently but builds to a thumping climax on a raging river, when all those questions get washed downstream ... The colorful adult characters take supporting roles as the boys, a likable duo, plot their escape by way of the nearby river ... There is rough humor in the interactions between Teddy and Cal, a bumbler with no experience riding a horse who fears the woods surrounding the river ... With bears, waterfalls and more, the novel may be hard to believe at times, but that won’t stop readers from enjoying the boys’ battle with the elements.
The characters are expertly drawn in their shifting relationships, and the two boys' closeness and bravery are especially affecting. Realistically, they have moments of genuine tension in a narrative that is both an engaging adventure and a profound reflection on human bonding, what it means to be a man (and a good one), and the importance of persevering. Indeed, some iteration of the word hope appears nearly 100 times in the book, yet the result is never treacly; facing the life issues examined here in an unforgiving if beautifully rendered wilderness is no easy feat ... Highly recommended, whether you want literate thrills or thoughtful, affirming meditation.
Graff’s debut novel will enchant fans of Chris Cleave and Melissa Bank. Graff’s narrative voice is lyrical, with a Southern Gothic edge that fits surprisingly well with the Wisconsin Northwoods setting. Exploring the necessity of the stories we tell ourselves to survive, Raft of Stars is a clever, compelling coming-of-age tale.
Though set in 1994, the wilderness odyssey that shapes Graff’s rewarding coming-of-age debut has a timeless, archetypal resonance ... Though the resolution yields few surprises, Graff depicts the harsh Northwoods setting and his misfit characters’ inner lives with equal skill. The dynamic quest narrative offers plenty of rich moments.
The action sequences are exciting, though the reader has to overlook a few unlikely scenarios and coincidences to follow this journey ... Still, Graff’s characters have heart to spare, and his affection for this rugged part of the country is infectious. His coming-of-age story offers us nostalgia and escape, and he reminds us that while freedom can be elusive, the people who love you always make your life worth living. A nostalgic coming-of-age story that plays out in a wild, intriguing setting.