Review: The Raft by S.A. Bodeen

Review: The Raft by S.A. Bodeen

The Raft by S.A. Bodeen

The Raft by S.A. Bodeen

I am desperately seeking a kick-ass survival book. If I hear that a book involves lifeboats and/or being marooned on a island, I am all over it.

As a result, I had high hopes for S.A. Bodeen’s young adult survival novel, The Raft. 

Unfortunately, like the other survival story I read this year, The Lifeboat, The Raft didn’t live up to my (very high) expectations. With that said, I think there’s an audience that will enjoy this lost-at-sea, Hatchet-style novel.

Robie is a 15-year old with an unusual life. Her parents are researchers and she lives on Midway Island. She frequently hops a ride on the cargo plane between Midway and Honolulu, where her aunt lives and has a measure of independence that’s unusual for someone so young. It’s on one of these trips to visit her aunt that she leaves suddenly, following a frightening encounter with a stranger on the street. Because the phone lines are down and her aunt is out of town, no one knows that Robie’s headed back to Midway.

On the flight back, the plane experiences engine trouble and crashes into the sea. The co-pilot she’s never met before, Max, tosses her a life vest and deploys the plane’s lifeboat. Suddenly she and Max are alone in in the boat, adrift at sea. They have no water. They have no food (except a single bag of Skittles). There are sharks. It’s cold, it’s miserable and their only hope is that someone finds the raft—and soon.

Alone with the stinging of my scalp. Alone with the pain in my chest. Alone with the rain on my face. Alone with my freezing wet clothes, clammy dead weight against my skin. My breathing slowed. Alone with the truth…

The Raft focuses squarely on Robie’s struggle to survive at sea. She copes with sharks (a lot of sharks), mind-numbing twist and the pains of hunger.

This half of the story moves very quickly, but it never feels all that scary. It’s an interesting thing when the plot moves quickly, but it’s not engaging. I broke my Kindle while I was reading this book and even though I’d nearly finished, it took me weeks to remember that I needed to return to it. The quick pacing without tension just didn’t work for me. 

I wanted Robie to be terrified, or proactive, or completely morose. Instead, it felt like she was going through the paces of survival because she knew that she was in a YA novel. I knew that she was scared of the sharks, because I’m told that Robie’s scared of the sharks, not because I could ever feel her terror. 

I did, however, appreciate the many little touches that shined a light on the environmental issues faced by the world’s oceans.

“Ouch!” I’d stepped on something sharp and I looked down. An albatross chick, only a skeleton, still half feathered with silvery black down, most of the body eaten by crabs. I grabbed a stick and probed inside the ribs, what used to be the gullet, poking at a pile of red plastic. Caps from plastic bottles, fake plastic cherries, even a red toy soldier missing one arm. I shook my head. One of that season’s chicks whose parents had inadvertently killed it. When adult albatross fished on the surface of the ocean, they mainly feasted on squid eggs. But, with all the garbage in the ocean, this chick’s parents must have honed in on the color red, and ended up filling their chick’s belly with plastic. So it starved to death even though it thought its belly was full. It had been full, just full of the wrong stuff.

It makes sense that Robie is aware of these issues because of her parents’ work and living on Midway. For a younger audience, this exposition—which is well-integrated into the context of the story—could be very enlightening and moving. I’ve heard that parent-child book clubs are a thing these days, and because of this (and several of the decisions Robie has to make), The Raft would make an excellent book for discussion in a group like that. 

I had other two big issues with The Raft.

The first was that animal death is used quite a bit to create tension and emotion, and I am just so weary of that plot device. It’s not graphic or anything (otherwise, I would have stopped reading), but this is one of my hot button issues, so it’s got to be done very, very well for me not to be bothered. Obviously, in a survival book, there’s a high likelihood of animals dying. But, it was crafted in a way that it was used to illustrate Robie’s emotions (these moments are one of the few times she really seems to experience authentic emotion). 

The second is that I wished that the psychological implications of what happened would have been explored more. This is a short book, I know, but I felt like that wasn’t addressed as much as I would have liked (the book focuses very much on the physical survival aspect). The Raft had the misfortune of landing in my reading sequence shortly after Miracle, which is an equally short book that explores the aftermath of a plane crash. The subtle peeling away of the damage resulting from being a sole survivor was so well done in Elizabeth Scott’s book that even though The Raft dealt with immediate, physical survival, I wanted more in terms of the emotional side of the story.   

There’s a pretty big twist about two-thirds in, which I suspected, but it made a lot of sense for the story. 

I think younger readers (I’m thinking middle school age), however, will find the twist fairly shocked and thrilling. But as someone who’s read a number of this type of book, I called it early on.

And that’s a bit of the lingering frustration I had with The Raft. While it’s marketed as a teen title, it felt a bit young, more like something for the 11-13 year old crowd. The messages are pretty clear and somewhat heavy-handed and there’s not the nuance that I’m used to reading in many YA novels. However, if it were marketed to the younger crowd, I would feel very differently about The Raft. I know it’s pretty typical for tweens to “read up,” so perhaps that was the intent with this story?

Interestingly, while I love survival stories, I generally find fictional ones to be lacking the tension and compelling human drama found in excellent non-fiction accounts such as Into Thin Air.

I always find myself feeling like the stakes aren’t high enough, that everything falls into place too conveniently, when the very nature of survival is inconvenient. Furthermore, in great non-fiction accounts the survival stories and human stories are interwoven—in novels they often fall too strongly in one direction or the other. Perhaps I simply need to abandon my search for an excellent fictional version when there are so many outstanding real accounts that far exceed that which an author can imagine. 

FNL Character Rating: Early Julie Taylor

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Disclosure: I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

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