By Micaela Cashman
Ope, almost didn’t see you there–I was too excited about Raft of Stars finally coming out on March 23! I raved about it in my top 5 books of 2020 roundup, and I am going to do so again here. I’ll also give you some recommendations for other fantastic Midwest books. I was born and raised here, and I’m proud, darn it!
Raft of Stars by Andrew J. Graff
Two young boys find themselves in the middle of a violent crime and flee into Wisconsin’s Northwoods, where they are faced with arduous battles between nature and themselves. Along with the four adults from their tiny rural community who chase after them, the dynamic and lovable characters of Raft of Stars take on immensely different journeys while aiming for the same happy ending.
As they face white-water rapids, raging storms, grizzly beasts, and hunger and fear, the adults are reduced to childlike impulses, and the boys are forced to behave with adult bravery and responsibility. The way Graff weaves the similarities between the plights of the forest and the tests of life is mesmerizing. Clawing desperately for solid ground as you try to make sense of the chaotic world whirring around you. Futilely trying to meet your needs when you have absolutely no idea how to do so. And, of course, the pure thrill of realizing you’re capable of more than you ever thought possible. If you’re a fan of The Hearts of Men by Nickolas Butler, you’ll love Raft of Stars.
The Gilead Series by Marilynne Robinson
By now, you’ve probably heard Oprah chose this series for her book club. Let me just say that Abbey and I were reading these books before they were cool.
They are certainly not for everyone. Each book is very meditative and focuses on deep character development rather than plot. I don’t think my sister would get through a single one of these books. But if you love complex sentences and even more complex characters who are grappling with life’s biggest questions, you’ll love Gilead, Home, Lila, and Jack. The quartet is set in 1950s Iowa. I can easily picture my parents’ quaint hometowns as Robinson weaves her intricate and lovely tales.
Real Life by Brandon Taylor
Iowa Writers’ Workshop author debut alert! Taylor’s first novel was named Best Book of the Year by The New York Times, The Washington Post, and a whole bunch of other really impressive people and organizations. Real Life follows Wallace, a grad student, who finds himself far from home at a Midwestern university. Taylor writes bluntly and beautifully about Wallace’s experiences as the first and only Black man in the program and a gay man in a world of toxic masculinity. His struggles to find where he belongs, both professionally and personally, are painfully real and relatable. I won’t forget this one any time soon.
American Gospel by Lin Enger
This one narrowly missed my “best of 2020” list. Set during the Watergate era on a small Minnesota farm, the story follows an elderly man who has essentially invented his own religion. After suffering a heart attack, he claims to know the exact date the world is ending and begins making preparations. His estranged son, a struggling reporter in New York, decides to cover the story in the hopes of making his big break. A Hollywood starlet and a string of other quirky characters show up for the end of the world, chaos following in their wake. Something about the specific time period of this book made American Gospel that much more relevant for today’s issues.