“The Returned’: A chance to look at how we treat each other

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 27, 2014

“The Returned,” by Jason Mott. Harlequin Mira. 352 pp. $14.95 paperback. Also in e-editions.
SALISBURY — It was Aug. 16, 1966, when Jacob William Hargrave drowned. Fifty years later, agent Martin Bellamy stands outside the house where Jacob’s now aged parents, Harold and Lucille Hargrave, live.
Holding his hand is an 8-year-old boy, Jacob William Hargrave. Jacob has returned. He is not the first, he will not be the last, and nobody knows where these people once deceased have been or where they have come from, not even those who are returning.
Jacob remembers being by the water near Beijing, China, and being lorded over by a bunch of Chinese women. Nobody could understand what the other was saying until someone figured the boy spoke English and found an interpreter. Thus began Jacob’s journey back to Arcadia, back to his parents’ home, under the care of the International Bureau of the Returned. Jacob remembers being beside the river in China and he remembers being in the river in which he drowned at his birthday party before that; he remembers nothing in between.
Harold and Lucille go through the trauma of forced acceptance of their returned son, as neither of them initially is willing to believe Jacob is what he is. Is Jacob, in fact, their son, returned from, well, wherever, or is he some sort of apparition or some sort of clone or even, Lucille wonders, the devil himself? But time heals, slowly, so slowly, and though sometimes they have trouble admitting it to each other, to themselves, Harold and Lucille come to believe and accept Jacob as their son.
The larger community, Lucille’s church, must face the same quandary: They as individuals and as a group must decide what this is that has come to their community and how to react to it. Some, like Pastor Peters, readily accept Jacob; others, like Fred, see the child as a threat to humankind that, if at all possible, must be gotten rid of at all costs. Caught in the middle is Agent Bellamy and others of the bureau.
Arcadia, “as close to a nonexistent town as they could want, and with only a handful of people, none of whom were anyone of note,” has much empty and available space, which results in the bureau, under Col. Willis, importing other returned people from across the country to be held and processed before they are sent on to their homes, if wanted, or simply held, if not. Further, the returned in and around Arcadia, and Jacob is not the only one, are ordered confined to their own land and homes.
Because Harold can be an ornery cuss, he and Jacob are soon picked up for being off property and confined to the school in town with the accumulating returned. Lucille, on the outside, sees that they are provided with food and other necessities, but Fred, also on the outside, begins to hatch his own plans for the returned. And, inside, within Harold’s old body, parts begin their own conspiracy.
Fred and his group of dissidents gradually grow to a dozen or so and begin a silent protest against the returned across from the school, which has become more like a prison. As the school has filled, more and more of the town is taken over for additional housing of the returned. The protests eventually turn violent.
At the same time, within the confines of the school, certain alliances begin to form among the returned, and among the returned and some of the soldiers. As more and more alliances are formed, as less and less order is maintained, confusion begins to take hold and more individuals and groups seek and take control. Ultimately, it is Lucille who must restore the equilibrium.
With “The Returned,” author Jason Mott has penned a rather simplistic story using a theme that has been bandied about by many authors, but he has added embellishments that make it a unique and exciting story. His broad concept that these people, returned from the dead, come not to do evil, but simply to return to where they once were and perhaps pick up the pieces of their former lives for a time, perhaps an ever-so-brief time, is original.
Mott takes this concept and places it in contemporary America (actually the world, but the book focuses on this country) and then allows all the warts, dysfunctions and evils of modern America destroy what could be a beautiful, even though temporary occasion, because of fear and power. It is not the returned who are the threat here, it is the larger world they have come back to, and the threat is not just to the returned, but to any and all who harbor them or wish to give them solace. The returned are a vehicle for a commentary on our world as it is now, whether Mott wished his novel to be that or just a good story. It is the way the world is, it is something the world needs to get over, and it is a condition that cannot wait for the Lucilles to stand up to do it.