It’s the first rule of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness: Leave no trace of your presence when you exit the “evergreen empire.”
It’s also the subtext of Twin Cities author Mindy Mejia’s evocative new thriller, whose narrator is desperately — to the point of dangerous recklessness — seeking to find a trace of the mother who abandoned her. This psychological thriller is a triumph on two fronts: its evocative northern Minnesota setting, and the forthright voice of Maya Stark, its narrator.
The Boundary Waters looms like a granite beast in the book, a place “that erupted pillows of basalt into the land,” dressed them in “pine, fir and spruce” and fed them from the water highways that map its surface. Ten years ago, a father and son fled into the area and never returned, and like the shipwrecks beneath Lake Superior, the mystery surrounding their disappearance reinforced the ominous nature of the Boundary Waters and the secrets it can hide.
The novel opens with Lucas, the son, 10 years later, wandering into a camping outfitters’ store in Ely, Minn. Withdrawn, filthy and violent, he’s sent to the Congdon Psychiatric Facility in Duluth, where he’s assigned to Maya, the clinic’s speech therapist. Duluth becomes obsessed with “the boy who came back from the dead,” and Lucas quickly becomes a cause célèbre.
Along with the breathtaking descriptions of the Boundary Waters with its loons crying like “melancholy ghosts,” and the “Milky Way … overhead in a storm of shadows and stars,” Mejia also evokes Duluth, its people and the “absolute reign of Superior” with humility and humor.
The second triumph is Mejia’s narrator. Maya is such a refreshing change from the trend of unreliable “girls” in current thrillers that the clumsy coincidences in plotting, especially in the second half of the novel, didn’t matter to me. Maya Stark, as her name suggests, is blunt, candid and — oh, my, yes — damaged. She’s “a vase glued carefully back together,” its fissures threatening to crack at any time. Maya keeps the world at a distance, but she lets Lucas (and us) in.
Lucas needs to return to the Boundary Waters to find his father, and Maya agrees to help him. Maya thinks she knows the difference between “professional compassion” and “personal attachment,” but the phantom pull of her mother is too much for her to resist. Directly after her mother left, she sent Maya rocks in the mail, leaving Maya to trace her mother’s whereabouts from “carefully polished agates” or nuggets of “amethyst.” Then one day, they stopped coming.
The Boundary Waters is “the pulse” of this novel, “the center, the inside,” and when I closed the final pages, I wondered if Maya might be its personification, which made the ending an even more satisfying one.
Carole E. Barrowman writes book for young adults and teaches English at Alverno College in Milwaukee.