Raft of Stars, Andrew J. Graff. New York: Ecco, 2021.
Summary: A coming of age adventure story of two friends fleeing down a river after what they think is the murder of the father of one of the boys, and the pursuit to save the boys from certain destruction from a danger unknown to them.
I would not have known of this book apart from an Ohio friend who put me onto this debut novel of Andrew J. Graff, a writing instructor at Wittenberg University. This was a delightful find.
The setting is the north woods of Wisconsin in 1994. It centers around two boys, Breadwin and Fish. Breadwin has a violent father he tries to stay away from as much as possible. Fish lost his father and his mother, Miranda lets him stay summers at her father Ted’s farm. Fish is concerned about the bruises he sees on his friend, and follows him home one night, to discover the father in the act of choking Breadwin. Fish spots a gun as the father spots him, fires, and the man collapses in a pool of blood. They think they’ve killed him and run for it, leaving a note at Ted’s, where they collect supplies. Fish proposes they take the path to the river that runs through the north forest to where it comes out at his father’s military post, not telling Breadwin he no longer has a father. Finding an abandoned shack by the river, they are able to turn it into a raft.
Sheriff Cal came from Texas. This little town was the perfect escape from a situation where he broke procedure in apprehending a bad character. He’s no longer sure about a career in law enforcement and drinks more than is good for him, but this seems to be the perfect place to get some peace and perspective–until he finds Breadwin’s father apparently dead and the boys on the run. He and Ted mount a search on horseback, kind of a series of mishaps for Cal, unused to tracking in a forest.
Then Fish’s mom Miranda decides to follow, along with Tiffany, a gas station attendant who colors her hair, has lived on the edge of poverty, but has come to appreciate the boys, and even the new sheriff. Miranda is a cross between a devout pentecostal and a mamma bear, the latter more urgent yet because she finds out Breadwin’s father had survived and her son was not a murderer.
The pursuit is urgent, not to apprehend the boys but to head them off from destruction from a river gorge they cannot raft through and don’t know is there. Much of the book is an account of how the boys elude capture while being pursued by their rescuers. Perhaps some of the best writing is the storm and tornado sequences, where one experiences the terror of encountering these phenomena unprotected.
What makes this debut novel so good? Is it the deepening relationship and resourcefulness of the boys? Is it the collaboration of people for whom life hasn’t been easy? Is it the lovable but seemingly ineffectual Constable Bobby (who plays an important role toward the end)? Is it the river journey, a literary trope featuring in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness? Only here, instead of people becoming stripped of the veneer of civilization, they summons the means to become better versions of themselves. This is an adventure story, a coming of age story, and a love story wrapped into one. And in a rare achievement, the author does it without sex scenes or profanity and through characters with flaws and grit, not plaster saints.
I understand the author has a sequel in the works, set in northern Wisconsin, where he grew up. Sign me up. I look forward to seeing how he develops as a writer. This was a very good debut.