I picked up Andrew J. Graff’s novel, RAFT OF STARS kind of as an assignment. Graff is among the presenting authors for this year’s Washington Island Literary Festival, September 15–17. I serve on the lit fest committee and volunteered to write a review that will appear in Washington Island’s local newspaper, the Washington Island Observer. I drew RAFT OF STARS.
As a writer myself, I’ve been a frequent student at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival in Iowa City, home of the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Graff, like many of my writing festival teachers, is a graduate of the two-year residency program,* so I opened his debut with enthusiasm.
In RAFT OF STARS, Graff takes readers on an often harrowing journey deep into the woods of Northern Wisconsin. Set in the mid-1990s, the story is told by three point-of-view characters.
The youngest narrator, Fischer “Fish” Branson, age 10, makes a snap decision in an impulsive effort to save his friend Dale, “Bread” Breadwin, from yet another beating by Bread’s abusive and neglectful father. Fish’s act of courage sends the boys on the run, their goal a reunion with Fish’s own absent father.
The second narrator is twenty-five-year-old misfit Tiffany Robins, a lonely young woman with abandonment issues of her own. Tiffany pays her rent by working the cash register at a convenience store two miles north of Claypot, Graff’s fictional Northwoods Wisconsin burg. An aspiring poet, she keeps the coffee fresh as she awaits the daily (nightly, usually) appearance of Sheriff Cal—forced to fill his cruiser’s tank every twenty-four hours because Marigamie County is so big.
Cal is the novel’s third narrator. A Texan whose post-academy job in Houston did not go well, Cal—like most of Graff’s characters—is on more than one quest. Professionally, he needs to find and save the missing boys before their raft goes over the massive falls at Ironsford Gorge. Personally, he’s searching for his true calling in life and doesn’t think it’s police work.
Non-narrating secondary characters include Fish’s wise, Korean-war veteran grandpa Teddy, his uber-religious mother Miranda, “Blind Burt” Atkinson, Cal’s dog Jacks, and a noncompliant saddle horse.
Graff evokes both the grandeur and danger of the natural world with beautiful, descriptive writing on every page:
The boys pushed their bikes along a ridge trail overlooking a moonlit river. The trail was soft with pine needles where it wasn’t riddled with rocks. The air smelled green, like ferns and cedar.
You can purchase Graff’s book—which I enthusiastically recommend—at your own favorite independent bookstore or my favorite, Fair Isle Books on Washington Island. Tell Deb Wayman I sent you!
*I’ve crossed paths with more than one writer who tried and filed (sometimes more than once) to get into the Iowa City program. It’s a big deal.