In Andrew J. Graff’s True North, the raging river in Wisconsin’s Northwoods also serves as a metaphor for Sami and Swami Brecht’s marriage. After Sami inherits the Woodchuck Rafting Company from his eccentric uncle, Chip, the couple travel with their three children to find they have taken on an impossible challenge. Not only has Chip allowed the river guide service to deteriorate, but formidable competition is taking away business. Because Sam gave his wife the deed to Woodchuck, she will have the most to say about whether they will try to revamp the company or sell. And with their marriage rocking harder than any of the company’s rafts in a rain storm, Sam knows he will have to fight to change Swami’s mind.
Although Sam and Swami met while white water guides in West Virginia, the pressure of caring for a family has changed Swami’s focus. She hope to sell the company so they can go back to Chicago and resume normal lives. What she doesn’t know is that cutbacks at Sam’s school have placed in jeopardy his job as an art teacher. He needs Woodchuck to work out to provide a future for his family.
Things get off to a bad start. Driving to Wisconsin, their Winnebago hits a deer. Coming to their rescue are three workers at Northwoods, Pete, Randy, and Bear, who help tow the RV to Woodchuck’s camp. Sam is shocked when he bumps into Uncle Chip who is drunk. But Sam’s presence helps to sober Chip up. He knows his nephew is there to turn the business around. And once Sam is on the river, he remembers how he loved riding the rapids and giving people a thrill.
Swami, however, is anything but happy. She bans Sam from sleeping in the RV, meaning he spends his days and nights in Chip’s company, although he does return to take care of the children, Darren, Dell, and the baby, DeeDee. Swami’s attitude improves a bit when she meets Moon, another guide who is a cross between a hippie and a mystic. She introduces the children to a rice dish, ema datshi, and they dine sitting on a beautiful quilt she made.
X-treme, Woodchuck’s competition has deep pockets and offers a rock wall and a zip line to augment what it offers adventurers. Swami, keeping count of business, too sees some of Woodchuck’s past clients desert for X-treme. The area also is attractive to developers who would like to purchase Chip’s land to build homes. For Chip, the river, the land, and his deer are his life. He refuses to sell, even with pressure from Swami.
Frustrated with the situation, Swami takes the children and goes back to Chicago. She puts their house on the market and tells Sam she’s taking the children to California, where they used to live. Sam fears he’s not only going to lose the business but his family.
Graff’s novel is an adventure story set against a human one. He handles both sides of this story with insight and sensitivity. Each run down the river is described in such detail, readers might feel they are riding along. The interactions and conversations between the characters never seem false or forced. There is no right or wrong in the sides Sam and Swami take, just the ups and downs of an all too familiar relationship.
Andrew J. Graff
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