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Raft of Stars: Book summary and reviews of Raft of Stars by Andrew J. Graff

Raft of Stars

by Andrew J. Graff

Raft of Stars by Andrew J. Graff X
Raft of Stars by Andrew J. Graff
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  • Published Mar 2021
    304 pages
    Genre: Literary Fiction

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Book Summary

An instant classic for fans of Jane Smiley and Kitchens of the Great Midwest: when two hardscrabble young boys think they've committed a crime, they flee into the Northwoods of Wisconsin. Will the adults trying to find and protect them reach them before it's too late?

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 bruised and terrorized by his no-good dad, Fish takes action. A gunshot rings out and the two boys flee the scene, believing themselves murderers. They head for the woods, where they find their way onto a raft, but the natural terrors of Ironsforge gorge threaten to overwhelm them.

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

The adults track the boys toward the novel's heart-pounding climax on the edge of the gorge and a conclusion that beautifully makes manifest the grace these characters find in the wilderness and one another. This timeless story of loss, hope, and adventure runs like the river itself amid the vividly rendered landscape of the Upper Midwest.

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Reviews

Media Reviews

"Andrew J. Graff's engrossing, largehearted debut novel, Raft of Stars, is a book with a distinctly Rousseauian vibe. It is the story of what happens when two 10-year-old boys flee into the northern Wisconsin woods and how they, and their various adult pursuers, don't merely survive, but shed their landlocked inhibitions and become better, bigger versions of themselves. ... Graff, who is a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, depicts his battle-scarred heroes with knowing generosity. In spare and unpretentious prose, he shows how their hard lives have left them wary and emotionally knotted. ... But the wilderness softens them. Despite brushes with danger and death — roaring rapids, charging bears, loaded rifles, hunger — they don't turn inward, nor do they turn against one another. No one goes Lord of the Flies. Instead, they do what they haven't felt free to do in civilization: open up and cry, reveal their regrets and fears and needs." —The New York Times Book Review

"[An] exquisitely crafted novel about two 10-year-old boys on the lam on a river raft. ... The art and craft of this narrative, apparent from the first page with its sublime constellations of images, offers brutal beauty, the glinting edge of truth, and the possibility of redemption for the fifth-grade boys, and also for the adults chasing them. Finding their way through the thick, gnarled woods and along the perilous river, both children and adults show they can transcend the thicket of confusion surrounding their personal circumstances and emerge toward more clarity." —Boston Globe

"An adventurous tale of misfit characters and a humble riverboat." —Parade ("A Must-Read Book of Spring")

"A heartfelt and enjoyable story with a welcome and genuine sense of place."—Milwaukee Magazine

"A dark, dreamy, adrenaline-spiked escape into [the] Midwest wilderness... . Graff captures the pure connection between friends on the cusp of adulthood, struggling to love parents with sometimes-unforgivable imperfections, and the world created by his powerful, thrumming style is not so much a setting as it is a star-shot forest dreamscape of cedar trees, prowling coyotes, and sun-bleached scarecrows made of bone." —Popsugar

"[A]n engaging adventure and a profound reflection on human bonding, what it means to be a man (and a good one), and the importance of persevering...the result is never treacly; facing the life issues examined here in an unforgiving if beautifully rendered wilderness is no easy feat. Highly recommended, whether you want literate thrills or thoughtful, affirming meditation." —Library Journal (starred review)

"Graff's rewarding coming-of-age debut has a timeless, archetypal resonance...Though the resolution yields few surprises, Graff depicts the harsh Northwoods setting and his misfit characters' inner lives with equal skill. The dynamic quest narrative offers plenty of rich moments." —Publishers Weekly

"The action sequences are exciting, though the reader has to overlook a few unlikely scenarios... Still, Graff's characters have heart to spare, and his affection for this rugged part of the country is infectious. His coming-of-age story offers us nostalgia and escape, and he reminds us that while freedom can be elusive, the people who love you always make your life worth living. A nostalgic coming-of-age story that plays out in a wild, intriguing setting." —Kirkus Reviews

"Reminiscent of stories like Stand By Me and Have You Seen Luis Velez?, Graff's debut novel will enchant fans of Chris Cleave and Melissa Bank. Graff's narrative voice is lyrical, with a Southern Gothic edge that fits surprisingly well with the Wisconsin Northwoods setting. Exploring the necessity of the stories we tell ourselves to survive, Raft of Stars is a clever, compelling coming-of-age tale." —Booklist

"I had no idea people wrote books like Andrew J. Graff's Raft of Stars anymore—a rousing adventure yarn full of danger and heart and humor and characters worth worrying about. It's as if, after observing the deplorable state we're all in right now, the author took it upon himself to raise our collective spirits. Bravo!" —Richard Russo, author of Empire Falls and Chances Are...

"Graff has crafted not only an adventure story with a warm heart at its center, but a whole town of characters for readers to fall in love with." —J. Ryan Stradal, author of The Lager Queen of Minnesota

This information about Raft of Stars was first featured in "The BookBrowse Review" - BookBrowse's membership magazine, and in our weekly "Publishing This Week" newsletter. Publication information is for the USA, and (unless stated otherwise) represents the first print edition. The reviews are necessarily limited to those that were available to us ahead of publication. If you are the publisher or author and feel that they do not properly reflect the range of media opinion now available, send us a message with the mainstream reviews that you would like to see added.

Any "Author Information" displayed below reflects the author's biography at the time this particular book was published.

Reader Reviews

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Betty Geiger

Total enjoyment from page one
I am only halfway through this book but couldn't resist reviewing it already...yeah, it's THAT good!! I grew up here in Northern Wisconsin and once made my own raft with neighbor kids!?? this story is WONDERFUL.... the setting, the circumstances, the characters are woven into a story I don't want to end.

Cloggie Downunder

An outstanding debut novel.
Raft of Stars is the first novel by American author, Andrew. J. Graff. Fish and Bread are on the run. Fish (sort-of-accidentally) shot Bread’s dad (a nasty, violent alcoholic), and they don’t want to go to jail or foster care. Bread leaves a note for Fish’s grandpa on his fridge to explain they are headed for the National Guard Armory at Ironsford to find Fish’s dad (who will know what to do).

The note promises to send money for what they have taken, and asks grandpa to please reassure Fish’s mom they will be OK: they have their bicycles, two cups, their fishing poles, some food, Jack Breadwin’s gun and five bullets, grandpa’s jackknife and sharpening stone, a flint, matches and a tarp. Please tell the Sheriff that Fish didn’t mean to kill Bread’s dad (he’s on the Breadwin kitchen floor).

Ten-year-old Fischer and his best friend Dale Breadwin are confident they can make their way through the Mishicot Forest to Ironsford, ninety miles to the north. They will build a cedar raft, follow the river, hunt and fish, poach if they have to.

Their plan does have a few small wrinkles: Fish hasn’t told Bread that his father died in the Middle East three years ago; both boys are likely discounting the danger of coyotes and bears; neither boy is aware that the forest harbours dubious characters running meth labs in riverside cottages; nor, perhaps most importantly, that there are dangerous, unnavigable rapids at Ironsford Gorge.

They soon realise that they have grossly underestimated the difficulty of raft-building with only a barlow knife, and when their food supply (Slim Jims, beans, tuna) runs out, they are dismayed to find not only that foraging and fishing less productive than they had anticipated, but also that killing a creature to eat it is not as easy or straightforward as they had believed.

Meanwhile, within hours, several people are on their trail. Fischer’s grandpa, Teddy Branson is a Korean War veteran who immediately understands the dangers these essentially good boys could face, and is determined to save them. Sheriff Cal is a newcomer to the Northwoods of Wisconsin, having departed Houston, Texas in disgrace to take up the post of interim Sheriff in Claypot. A year in Marigamie County has done little to take the city out of the man, and he’s unconvinced about such a trek on horseback.

Fischer’s mom, Miranda travels from Cedar to await news at Teddy Branson’s farm. Tiffany Robins, the purple-haired cashier at the Sit-And-Go Gas Station, was charged with caring for Sheriff Cal’s dog. The aspiring young poet, who is sweet on the Sheriff, joins Miranda when the blue heeler goes AWOL. But Miranda is a mother fiercely attached, a lioness who is single-minded about rescuing her boy, and cannot sit idle. These two women strike out in pursuit, proving themselves surprisingly resourceful.

As two boys on a raft face hunger and weather and wildlife, two men with horses, persistent mosquitoes and a machete slash a path north, while two women paddle a canoe towards those killer rapids. They face wild water, storms both physical and psychological, and discover untapped reserves of strength and courage.

As the story hurtles towards a dramatic climax, friendships are formed, loyalties are tested, truths are told and acts of true bravery are performed. Graff does it all with some gorgeous evocative prose: “Fish saw a stretch of river the length and width of a football field, marked by vertical cliffs on either side, with two or three craggy islands dividing explosive currents. The water seemed to fight itself. It tumbled into pits. It bellowed. It hissed and leapt. It beat against the faces of the islands in giant, upswept pillows of water. Downstream of the islands, the entire river disappeared again, presumably over another falls, sprays of water rising into the lightning.”

This is a tale of love and grief and valour which can favourably compare with William Kent Krueger’s This Tender Land. Frequently funny (often blackly so), sometimes sad, and occasionally thought-provoking, this is a tale that would translate extremely well to the silver screen. An outstanding debut novel.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and HQ Fiction.

Ginny H. (Troutdale, OR)

Raft of Stars
I am so amazed by the beauty of this book. What a wonderful story filled with characters that I learned to love and an adventure that keeps you on the top of your toes. The author is an amazing writer. I found myself having to stop after reading a sentence and admiring its perfection. I hope to find more books from this author in the future. This deserves more than a rating of 5 for Very Good. It was exceptional. This is one of the best books I've read in years.

Miriam B. (Lakewood Ranch, FL)

Raft of Stars is stellar!!!!
I loved Raft of Stars by Andrew J Graff and it was my book of the Fall 2020. The author made me care about the six main characters but especially the 2 boys- Fisher "Fish" Branson and Dale "Bread" Breadwin. Fish's grandfather Teddy and his mother Miranda are such strong wonderful people as is Sheriff Cal and Tiffany who is sweet on Cal. This story is such an adventure and was a real page turner.
The advice Miranda gives Fish is particularly perfect for this time of pandemic...... she says, "Just for a minute, just enjoy your pillow, just rest, let it go. Close your eyes and sail away from troubles on a raft made of stars!" Just change the word pillow to book and that is what we need now.......
The writing is beautiful and the book ends with words from Fish's grandfather, you are strong and you are good, and you are not alone." Amen.

Susan S. (Salida, CO)

Adventures like no other
If I could, I'd give Raft of Stars more than five stars! Two young boys on adventure in the woods near Claypot, Wisconsin with all the suspense of a cliff hanger. The characters reach out from the page and grab your heart – flawed and perfect, energetic and tired, ready for more and ready to quit.

Susan R. (Julian, NC)

Friendship
This is a book that I'd have never picked up -- a coming of age story about boys! Really? I won a copy from BookBrowse and knew I had to give it a chance. Wow - am I ever glad that I did. This debut novel was fantastic -- it not only featured the two young boys but also the adults in their lives. I laughed with the two boys and at times their friendship and honesty with each other made me cry. This is a book that I won't soon forget.

It's 1994 in a small town in Wisconsin. Fish has spent the summer with his grandfather ever since his father died three years ago. His best friend Bread lives with an extremely abusive father who constantly terrorizes him. The boys became best friends as soon as they met and they spend their summer in the woods, playing games and making up stories for their enjoyment. Until the summer night that Fish sees Bread's father hitting him and Fish grabs a gun and shoots him. The two boys know that they are in big trouble and head off into the woods to get as far away as possible. They make it to the river, make a raft and set out on their adventure to escape. They are being tracked by four adults who want to help them - Fish's mother Miranda, a wise woman full of fierce faith; his granddad, Teddy, who knows the woods like the back of his hand; Tiffany, a purple-haired gas station attendant and poet looking for connection; and Sheriff Cal, who's having doubts about a life in law enforcement. The time the boys spend on the river is full of perilous situations that had this reader quickly turning pages to find out the outcome.

This book is more than a simple coming of age novel. It's a story about the bonds of friendship and the lengths that people will go through to help the people that they love - whether they are family by blood or family by friendship. Thanks to BookBrowse for a copy of this book to read and review. It was fantastic!

...14 more reader reviews

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Author Information

Andrew J. Graff

Andrew J. Graff is the author of the novel Raft of Stars. His fiction and essays have appeared in Image and Dappled Things. Andrew grew up fishing, hiking, and hunting in Wisconsin's Northwoods. After a tour of duty in Afghanistan, Graff earned an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop. He lives in Ohio and teaches at Wittenberg University.

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