A long unsolved bank robbery, a cocky California boy, a corrupt cop and more than a few good-natured jabs at small-town Minnesota life that has roots in Kandiyohi County — specifically Green Lake — come together in a new novel by Minnesota author Lisa Bullard.
“Turn Left at the Cow,” is Bullard’s first book geared for middle-school readers, although she has picture books to her credit (“Not Enough Beds” and “Trick-or-Treat on Milton Street,”) as well as nonfiction works for young readers.
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, “Turn Left at the Cow” was released Tuesday for $16.99.
The 298-page whodunit has some familiar landmarks that local readers will be quick to pick out.
Bullard grew up in Bemidji but spent childhood summers playing with cousins at her grandparents’ cabin on Green Lake near Spicer.
The geographical focal point of the mystery, which takes the main character, Trav, from California to rural Minnesota farm and lake country, is a lake.
“It’s absolutely Green Lake, with a few extras,” said Bullard in a telephone interview. “I obviously embellished.”
The “extras” include an island, which Green Lake doesn’t have.
When she is picturing the cabin of another main character — Trav’s grandmother — Bullard said she was actually picturing her family’s small cabin on Green Lake.
One local landmark needed no embellishment.
Trav, who spends a fair amount of time mocking small-town life before he realizes the goodness of community folks, finds it humorous that a small town grocery store is named “The Big Store.”
Until it closed a few years ago, “The Big Store” was an actual grocery store in New London.
Bullard said her fictional town, which Trav “calls all these terrible names,” deliberately has no name. But she said it is a combination of New London and Spicer.
“I merged them together as one town,” she said.
Likewise, the lake in her book has no name.
It is Green Lake, but Bullard said she changed it enough so it became “every lake.”
Even the basis of the novel’s mystery came from the depths of Green Lake.
Bullard said she and her young cousins were fascinated by the real-life tragedy of a Cessna Birddog airplane that crashed into Green Lake in 1958, killing its pilot, Capt. Richard Carey, of Willmar.
Bullard said she and her cousins spent summer days canoeing on Green Lake, looking for the lost airplane.
“We were just fascinated about the story of the plane being out there,” said Bullard. That memory stuck with her and launched the idea of setting her mystery in a lake community.
Although the pilot’s body was found a couple weeks after the crash, the plane wasn’t found until 2004 — when Bullard was in the process of writing her book.
Although the book has a heavy dose of teen snarkiness and eye-rolling at Minnesota traditions like tater-tot hotdish, the State Fair butter heads and large fiberglass statues at the entrance to many small towns, the also book includes a cast of interesting characters that represents serious faults in our society and carries some hard-hitting issues that many kids face today.
Trav is a 13-year old who runs away from his mother and demanding step-father in L.A. only to be confronted with the truth that his biological father was accused of bank robbery and went missing years ago in his Minnesota hometown.
Some in the fictional community believed the missing man and the missing money were at the bottom of the lake, which helps spin the mystery.
Issues of domestic abuse, mental illness, grief for a dead son and a cop-gone-bad come head-to-head with truth, gutsiness, kindness and forgiveness. Bullard said she hopes the book helps kids “feel like they’re not alone.”
Bullard also drew on another water-oriented theme that stems from the tenacity of a unique fish called the “walking catfish” that can apparently travel across land in search of food and a better environment.
Like that fish, Trav also finds solutions to his troubled life, although Bullard is careful not to give readers a “happily ever-after” ending.
Bullard said her book gives young readers a look at “real life” issues but also has the message that “you don’t have to settle for what you’re given” and that they not only “survive difficult things but you can also thrive.”
Bullard has been in the publishing and writing world for a couple decades and is most well-known for short children’s books.
Switching to a long-form novel was a challenge that took her three years to complete.
Even though she’s a published author, it took an additional three years to get this book published.
She said she hasn’t decided if this book will have a sequel.
Book signing, 1 to 3 p.m. Oct. 19,
Mill Pond Mercantile in New London