Drawing on memories of his own childhood, LaMarche uses a comfortably paced first-person narrative to set the scene in Wisconsin’s north woods. His distinctive pastel artwork, soft-edged yet radiant, fills each double-page spread. We watch Nicky from different angles, adopting the perspective of birds, turtles, otters, and other creatures that visit his raft.
Contemporary children’s literature doesn’t often incorporate young characters with such a well-developed and uncontrived connection to nature as Nicky's. For that reason, this book would have been notable even had the author stuck to a straightforward story of nature exploration. (Gary Paulsen and Margriet Ruurs succeed with this approach in their wonderful picture books—respectively, Canoe Days and When We Go Camping.)
But LaMarche had something else in mind. Through Nicky, he reminds us that boys are more than “just boys.” They are moved by emotions, affected by experience, and capable of deep empathy.
On the first reading of this scene, children's attention will probably be riveted on Nicky's dejected expression. They'll be compelled to turn the page and learn what happens for this boy. But make time to linger the second time around. Take note of finer points in the illustration, such as a nearby dock and the animal "friends" hovering solicitously around Grandma. These details are characteristic of LaMarche, who is always attentive to the minutia that visually describe his characters and setting—some of which foreshadow later plot developments.
After his father departs, Nicky wanders through his grandmother's little cabin. It seems the perfect place for a child to enjoy, filled with books, art supplies, and outdoor gear. Intriguingly, the author gives hints that Nicky has never been here before—even that he and Grandma are almost strangers. Nicky’s relationship with Grandma is only one among numerous mysteries in The Raft. (Why must Nicky’s father take a job where the boy cannot join him? Where is Nicky's mother? And where did that raft come from?)
I point out these questions, yet I don’t mean to suggest that they weaken the story. In fact, I feel more engaged because the author does not tell me everything. Think of it this way: We never know anyone completely. Relationships (even in literature) can be enhanced by the sense that we still have something to learn about the other person. LaMarche understands the parameters of his story and doesn't try to cram in too much. He reveals what is essential to resolve the plot, leaving room for readers to imagine what lies before and after. Given the opportunity, kids will readily provide their own interpretations of Nicky’s backstory. This is great fodder for family conversations or classroom writing prompts.
Nicky needs some time to struggle with his feelings of loss and disorientation. Grandma encourages him to continue with the everyday stuff of life—chores, stacking firewood, fishing for dinner. One day, the raft drifts downstream and becomes entangled in reeds next to the dock. Nicky cleans it up and this object becomes his anchor--a way to connect with the pleasures and beauty of the moment. In the weeks that follow, he discovers a deep appreciation for wildlife and a new talent for art. More than this, Nicky begins to see how much he has in common with his grandmother. We don’t know what will happen once he returns home, but it’s clear that Nicky and Grandma have forged a bond that will endure. She reminds him that he’s now “part of the river,” too. The lonely, worried boy who arrived can leave assured that he has a place in someone’s heart—and a place in the world.