Can a pair of 10-year-old boys actually build a raft by themselves with nothing but a knife and lumber from an abandoned shed? Can a city-raised, tenderhearted sheriff last three whole days in the wilderness? These are questions a reader may ask while reading Andrew J. Graff’s fine debut novel, Raft of Stars, which begins gently but builds to a thumping climax on a raging river, when all those questions get washed downstream.
The boys are Fish and Bread, significant nicknames indeed. In 1994, Fish spends summers on his grandfather’s farm in rural Claypot, Wisconsin, where his best friend is Bread, a local boy with a mean father. When Fish shoots Bread’s dad to protect his friend, the boys, fearing they are killers, light out for the north woods. In hot pursuit are Fish’s capable grandfather, Teddy; Cal, a burned-out sheriff from Houston, Texas; Tiffany, a purple-haired budding poet with a crush on Cal; and Fish’s Pentecostal mother, Miranda.
The colorful adult characters take supporting roles as the boys, a likable duo, plot their escape by way of the nearby river. On an island, they discover a shed in which poachers have conveniently left a tangle of strong rope, as well as cans of beans. Wet and tired, they manage to assemble a hardy log raft.
There is rough humor in the interactions between Teddy and Cal, a bumbler with no experience riding a horse who fears the woods surrounding the river. There’s fun, too, when Tiffany learns to pilot a canoe with help from denim-clad Miranda. As storms buffet the landscape, Graff crafts a tense adventure; the boys don’t know about the rocks that await them or the adults who are tracking them. Everyone must test their competence and their nerve against the inhospitable wilds.
With bears, waterfalls and more, the novel may be hard to believe at times, but that won’t stop readers from enjoying the boys’ battle with the elements. “Boys need to shake their manes,” Miranda says. Raft of Stars allows these capable kids to demonstrate their grit.