Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone, or if he asks for fish, will give him a snake? – Matthew 7:9-10
Those who give you a serpent when you ask for a fish may have nothing but serpents to give. – Khalil Gibran
I had three good cries in the first couple weeks of January 2020, during my three theater viewings of Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, and that set the pace for my crying calendar. I cried when Beth died, of course, and when she got her piano, and several times over the impossibility of Jo and Laurie’s love. I had so many different kinds of cries over the course of the year, in so many different places—in the car, into my pillow, on an airplane, on my parents’ back deck, from anger, from loneliness, from exhaustion, from shame and fear. Sometimes I was crying at circumstance, and sometimes I was crying at what a story had made me believe. For the first time, I began to pay attention to the difference.
Andrew J. Graff’s debut novel, Raft of Stars, follows a pair of ten-year-old boys, Fischer “Fish” Branson and Dale “Bread” Breadwin, through the wilderness of northern Wisconsin, along the banks of the Menominee, or a river like it. Fish has killed Bread’s abusive father to protect his friend, and they’re running away together, keeping each other afloat with boyish stoicism, each pretending not to notice when the other is about to cry. Following a strict diet of Slim Jims and false confidence, they try to make the best of this involuntary adventure in the woods on their way to Fischer’s father, who will “know what to do.”
Graff loves these boys and this landscape. His affection is already apparent in the novel’s opening scene, where the two kids find newborn snapping turtles crawling the wrong direction, away from water, and they spend an afternoon using the fronts of their shirts to carry the little creatures back to the marsh. “There were hundreds of them,” he writes, “like little round stones pushed up by a thaw… Both boys were covered in cornfield dust up to their armpits from gathering the turtles, and the turtles themselves were white with it, like they’d been shook up in a bag of frying flour.”
We get the sense that Graff is willing to get dusty, too, and to take the same kind of care with the beings that populate his story. The boys are sweet, but they aren’t naïve. “You know these are snappers we’re saving,” Bread says, and the beauty of the scene is already mingled with unavoidable threats. Some of the turtles will die soon, no matter what. Some of them will grow into adults that will hiss at the boys, and scare them, and at the end of the day, Bread has to go home to an angry father who will hurt him. “Turtles and dads weren’t supposed to rear up and hiss,” Graff writes.
The narrator of this novel understands life’s harsh realities only too well but wants the reader to encounter them with hope. The novel wants to hold you in its arms. It’s what the narrator calls a “speaking over”: “At Fischer’s mom’s church,” we learn in the first chapter, “congregants often ‘spoke over’ one another. It’s how they talked—spoken over, spoken to, words from the Lord, for a brother. Fish never minded it, but now he seemed to understand it. Bread and Fish had just been spoken over.”
He’s referring to Fischer’s grandpa’s words to the boys on the porch, after a brief, indirect conversation with Bread about the abuse he endures from his father. There isn’t much Grandpa can do or say, knowing that to get too involved might only make things worse for the kid. He makes Bread understand that his house will always be a place Bread can escape to. He says, “You boys are good, and strong enough to make it.”
Of course, it’s hard not to feel like Grandpa’s words here are hollow, much like the false promise Fish later offers Bread of the father who “will know what to do”—Fischer’s father has been dead for years, killed in action overseas. After we find this out, early in the novel, it establishes a complex relationship between the characters and hope. Fish knows there’s nothing waiting for them at the other end of this voyage, and yet he continues to behave as if there is hope, and this spurs both boys on. In the end, deliverance comes from elsewhere.
Neither Grandpa’s nor Fischer’s hope is rooted in realism, but it’s also not a delusion. Something more interesting is happening: these characters are expressing a kind of blind faith not in what is, but in what could or should be. Both characters seem to project a possible world which they have not yet known, but which they are “close to knowing,” as Graff writes in his mystical manner.
In his famous essay, “On Faerie Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien calls this possible world the story’s consolation. He writes:
The joy of the happy ending, or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale)… does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat… giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.
One morning, in the middle of the novel, Fish wakes up on the river raft the boys built together and finds Bread sitting on the edge, holding in his palm the casing of the bullet that killed his father. The tears he’s been avoiding come in a rush. Fish just holds his friend in his arms, not knowing what to say. Fish has lost a father, too, but it isn’t the same—and Graff does well in this scene distinguishing one kind of loss from another. Bread’s grief is tangled up with the fear and shame that characterized his relationship with his father. “I’m glad he’s dead. I prayed he’d die,” he says a few moments later, before bursting into tears again.
The seeming absence of God in the face of suffering is a problem no theology has adequately answered, I suspect. Graff acknowledges the problem without offering an answer. “You know what God did?” Bread asks Fish after telling him how he had prayed for the death of his father, and then for his own death. “God didn’t do nothing, Fish. Nothing.”
The novel’s characters are surrounded by religious culture, but most of them find it difficult to believe in God, or to understand what belief even means, which is comforting in its realism. It’s maybe best physicalized in Tiffany, a young poet and gas station attendant who feels stranded in this little town, alone, working through the hurt of her mother’s neglect. A scarring experience during a church visit has kept her away from religion, and she continues to hold it at a healthy distance, noting that “when God spoke, he usually told people disappointing things, or convenient ones to suit their desires.”
In the introduction to his 2020 essay collection, Longing for an Absent God, Nick Ripatrazone writes about Flannery O’Connor, who “believed the mysteries of faith demanded similarly mysterious tools in order to be made visible.” According to O’Connor, he says, “Dogma is ‘not a set of rules which fixes [what the writer] sees in the world. It affects his writing primarily by guaranteeing his respect for mystery’… dogma recedes rather than prescribes; it creates an atmosphere and background for a work.” As is the case for many writers of faith, O’Connor is one of the largest influences on Graff’s writing, and his novel leads its characters into a wilderness full of transcendence and mystery.
In particular, Graff’s river is numinous. It’s the center of everything. Its marshes cradle baby snapping turtles “the size of half-dollars.” Its shallows feed five-hundred-pound black bears providing for their cubs. It roars with the rage and desperation of Fischer’s mother, Miranda, as she paddles through the forest in a rainstorm to find her son. When a dead man tries to steal Bread’s hope, saying, “No one is coming. Nothing ever comes. There’s only you and me,” the river buries these lies in the current and washes them out to wherever rivers go.
The river brings every character to the end of themselves. In one scene, the sheriff, Cal, almost drowns in the rapids, caught in a circling current, and as he loses consciousness, he sees himself “flapping like a flag in a stiff wind, like the one they’d flown that day he’d graduated from the academy. Guns saluting. Standing at attention. Sons given rare hugs by fathers.” Cal doesn’t drown. He gets spit up on the bank and lies there vomiting river water and trying not to cry. And with the memory of his father still whirling through his mind, it occurs to him that he never wanted to be a policeman, that he only did it to please his father, and that it only brought him grief. This is one of several moments when the truth is brought forth to characters from behind a veil, and it changes them.
The novel, as we’ve seen, is full of the absence of fathers, which finds an analogue in God’s absence. But gradually, the novel’s many abandoned characters become surrogates to one another, and this little community begins to function like the hand of a new God, who will not give them a snake when they ask for fish, or a stone when they ask for bread.
It’s been a long time since a book made me cry, but Raft of Stars did. As I asked myself why, I began to understand that my tears at stories are about something larger than my individual feelings, larger than circumstance, the expression of a bittersweet relief—when the worst has already happened and the fear that sometimes drove the narrative is spent—that the story goes on after the fear “for there is no true end to any fairy-tale.”
It’s already dark as I write this on the last day of 2020. Across the street, my neighbors are trying to put the Times Square thing on a projector screen they set up on the sidewalk, and a pair of teens are lighting firecrackers in an empty parking spot, and everyone is singing “Happy Birthday,” weirdly. My throat is tightening with gratefulness. As I cross the threshold, I want to take with me the spirit of Fish and Bread, those sweet Wisconsin boys, their sincerity, and Fish’s insistence that “It was possible .. he didn’t yet know exactly how, but knew he was close to knowing—for a person to never again be afraid of anything.”