Book Review: “Leave No Trace” Is a Thriller in the Boundary Waters

Minnesota author Mindy Mejia is releasing her second mystery novel on Sept. 4

Photo courtesy Emily Bestler Books

On Sept. 4, Mindy Mejia is set to release her second mystery novel, “Leave No Trace” which is sure to leave thriller fans longing for more—and possibly a desire to visit Duluth and the Boundary Waters for themselves.

A far cry from the southern Minnesota world of her previous thriller, the author of “Everything You Want Me To Be,” has placed her new novel up north. “Leave No Trace” follows the story of a troubled 23-year-old woman, Maya Stark, whose job at a psychiatric facility as a speech therapist introduces her to psychiatric patient, Lucas Blackthorn, a 19-year-old boy who had disappeared into the woods with his father ten years ago. Everyone assumed they were dead—until Lucas showed up out of the blue, alive and well but violent and reserved, unwilling to answer the authorities’ question: Where is your father?

For Mejia, the entire idea for the story was inspired in 2013 by two real-life families who had also chosen the wilderness over civilization: the Ho Vans of Vietnam and the Lykovs of Russia.

The Lykov family spent 42 years in complete isolation after Karp Lykov and his wife took their children and fled northeast in 1936 after a communist patrol killed his brother. Eventually the family settled in the Abakan river basin, approximately 160 miles from any town. In 1978, they were found by a helicopter pilot, but when geologists made contact, the remaining family members refused to leave.

A little more recently, Ho Van Thanh, 82 and Ho Van Lang, 42 were discovered in 2013 after fleeing their village during the Vietnam War; they spent 40 years living together in a jungle treehouse. Ho Van Tri, another son of Ho Van Thanh, confirmed that he had found his father and brother 20 years prior, but couldn’t convince them to return to society.

“The idea that this boy (Ho Van Lang) had grown up completely cut off from society and had no idea what human society was…that fascinated me, so that’s where it began. But of course, I’m a Minnesotan and this landscape is dear to my heart, so I began thinking, ‘Could that happen here [in Minnesota]? Is there a place where someone could disappear effectively from the known world?’ And the Boundary Waters was the first place I thought of,” said Mejia.

The eerie, unblemished, and remote terrain of the Boundary Waters gives the novel an almost haunted quality, and plays off the other rather weighty themes in the book including mental illness, morality, grief, and insanity—all of which factor into Maya and Lucas’ lives in more ways than one.

Through “Leaves No Trace,” Mejia hopes to not only encourage people to take their own trip up to the Boundary Waters, but also to shed a light on mental illness and the healthcare system.

“It tends to not be talked about,” said Mejia. “It’s talked about more now that it has been [in the past] but it’s still a taboo topic…I would love it if people thought about it a little bit more deeply. How do we incorporate mental health into holistic health in the medical system? How do we address that and how do we get the resources that people need?”

With intensely complicated characters, a fast-paced plot, lots of twists and turns, and an impeccable ending, “Leave No Trace” is the type of book one finishes in one sitting, preferably with rain pattering on the window and a cup of coffee in hand.

“What makes someone crazy?” Maya asks readers in last chapter of the book. Readers will be asking this question right up until the very end—and the answer may not be as clear as they thought before.

To meet Mejia and listen to her speak about “Leave No Trace,” attend her book launch on Sept. 4 at Once Upon A Crime in Minneapolis; doors open at 6:30 p.m. She will also be presenting at Magers & Quinn Booksellers on Sept. 11, beginning at 7 p.m.