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“Raft of Stars: A Novel” by Andrew J. Graff

“It’s the summer of 1994 in Claypot, Wisconsin, and the lives of ten-year-old Fischer “Fish” Branson and Dale “Bread” Breadwin are shaped by the two fathers they don’t talk about.  One night, tired of seeing his best friend terrorized by his no-good dad, Fish takes action.  A gunshot rings out and the two boys flee to the woods, believing themselves murderers.  They find their way onto a raft, but the river and the natural terrors of Ironsford Gorge threaten to overwhelm them.

Four adults track them into the forest, each one on a personal journey of his or her own:  Sheriff Cal, who’s having doubts about a life in law enforcement; Tiffany, a gas station attendant and poet looking for connection; Fish’s mother, Miranda, full of fierce faith; and his grandfather Teddy, who knows the woods like the back of his hand.

This timeless story of loss, hope and adventure runs like the river itself amid the vividly rendered landscape of the Upper Midwest.”

Looking for an interesting summer read, I was immediately drawn in when I read the description above, from the back cover of the book “Raft of Stars”.  Born and raised in Wisconsin, I always like to check out stories based in my home state.  I spent many summers on family rafting trips in the northwoods of Wisconsin, so this book felt like a lovely place to visit, and I was richly rewarded for doing so.

“Raft of Stars” reels you in very quickly.  The author, Andrew J. Graff draws us into the lives of each of the main characters swiftly, with few words but plenty of depth.  If you’re a fan of the 1986 film “Stand By Me”, you’re sure to like this story, and the characters of Fish and Bread.  They are two decent kids growing up with certain challenges in their lives, and their friendship is believable and honest.  Of course they get into scraps and such, just as any kids would, but the author does a fantastic job of making you cheer them on from the very beginning.

Teddy, Fish’s grandpa is an interesting, multi-dimensional character.  He’s introduced as pretty rough around the edges.  He has scars from his time at war.  He isn’t a loveable, huggable teddy-bear of a grandpa, yet it’s clear that he has the best interest of Fish and Bread in his heart at all times.

Sheriff Cal and Tiffany are flirting with a relationship, but both are too scared to pull the trigger.  I loved the way the author handled what may or may not be a budding relationship for them.  That, too, was very lightly written…no Harlequin Romance drama here.

At times funny, sometimes scary and at times extremely sad, this book was one I didn’t want to put down.  The author’s descriptions put you right there in the heart of the forest, or floating down the river, and i found myself immersed in the story.  When the “raft of stars” line is introduced, it’s beautifully done so, in a poignant, sensitive way.

I wish I could write about another of the characters, someone who is revealed to us in the story, and who is probably the character I will remember the most when this story comes to mind in the future.  Andrew J. Graff absolutely struck at my heart strings with his writing about this soul.  It’s a stunningly beautiful, memorable part of the story and an unexpected gift, as well.  So hard to bite my tongue and not write more about this except thank you, Mr. Graff!!  

My only criticism of the book was that I felt that some of the verbage and dialogue was written in a more old-fashioned, almost western gunslinger way than I recognize from my life in Wisconsin and my ventures “up north”.  I was proven wrong, however, when I read that “Andrew J. Graff grew up fishing, hiking and hunting in Wisconsin’s northwoods.”  I guess the man wrote what he heard, so I stand corrected!

Raft of Stars will appeal to anyone who likes a good adventure and appreciates the beauty of nature, the gift of life, and the power of love.  I invite you to travel on the river with Fish and Bread and enjoy the ride.