What do you do when you are confronted with the son of your mother’s murderer?
Eleven years ago Skylar St. Clair’s father took him from their home in Nettlebush, a small Shoshone community on the edge of the Arizona desert. Away from the place where his wife had been murdered in a vicious attack. Skylar was also attacked, almost died, and was left mute. His father took him off the rez without a backward glance, and effectively cut Skylar off from his Native American heritage and refused to speak of why.
The story starts with the mysterious and sudden disappearance of Skylar’s father, and Skylar is forced to return to Nettlebush to live with his grandmother. At sixteen years old he finds himself dropped into a culture and place he knows nothing about, and with more questions than answers about his past. To make things worse, with his curly blond hair and fair skin, he looks more like his white mother than his Native father, and he sure sticks out like a sore thumb.“That is when I saw him.”
Raphael Gives Light looks like a bad boy. Like someone you should stay away from. Like he lives constantly under the shadow of his missing father, the murderer serial killer. But Skylar is drawn to his brooding edginess, his self-inflicted tattoos, his coal-black hair and stormy, dark blue eyes. Skylar, who it seems can hold no grudge or hard feeling against anyone, is drawn to a spirit in as much turmoil as his own, and he will not blame Raphael for his father’s sins even if one of them was taking his mother’s life.
The story unfolds over the course of a hot, dusty summer and the author effectively weaves Skylar into the fabric of his new community where he makes friends and learns about his people and the land. But, there is still a pulse of mystery about Skylar’s missing father (and Raphael’s father, who has also disappeared), and why the FBI keeps intruding, trying to intimidate Nettlebush with questions about the missing men. Actually, this gives some interesting background to tensions between Native Americans and the US government over reservation jurisdiction and how this works (or doesn’t) when a crime is committed there.
Skylar is a miracle. The relationship that blooms between him and Raphael is one of the most beautiful in the YA genre that I’ve read. Their discovery of friendship and love is gentle and sweet, gradual and believable. “He turned his head and gazed at me, eyes dancing and blue… I could almost believe he had never known anything beyond the profound simplicity of nature, tameless and wild… he was Pan and I was Daphnis. I never stood a chance.”
Skylar’s compassion eases Raphael’s dark guilt about his father. Raphael’s attempts to make penance are touching, but his true gifts are the kinship and protection he offers. “The more he talked, the more I listened. The more I listened, the more I forgot that I wasn’t talking back… I could quirk my eyebrows or tilt my head and he knew exactly what the gesture meant. He knew what I was feeling, if not what I was thinking. He made me feel like I had a voice.”
It’s ironic that if I have any issue with the story, it is with its voice. We only see the world through Skylar’s POV, in first person, giving us intimacy with his character. And his muteness gives this a deeper import. He describes the world around him, his perceptions and the action. But the expression of it is much more mature and eloquent than what one would expect from an inexperienced sixteen year old growing up in a small rural community. I can accept that Skylar is a deep thinker, that he is introspective and perceptive, but this all gets mixed up in what seems to be the author’s voice, really. I struggled with this, but I am too smitten with Skylar and his loving kindness. Let’s just call him a wise, old soul.
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