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O M N I V O R O U S

R E A D E R

Loves Lost

The blessing — and startling discomfiture — of a returning soul

BY STEPHEN E. SMITH

An old edition of the

college history text The American Experience relates the story of a religious zealot who walked into a New England village and proclaimed that he was Jesus. The local Puritans grabbed him, branded his forehead with a B for blasphemy, tarred and feathered him and ran him out of town on a rail — “thus demonstrating,” the authors wrote, “what would have happened to Christ had he actually returned.”

Such is the premise behind Jason Mott’s first novel, The Returned. But it’s not Jesus who’s resurrected; it’s the dead, en masse. And they appear all over the planet without any particular rhyme or reason. The Puritan village in Mott’s novel is Arcadia, a town of 600 souls located in southeastern North Carolina, where Harold and Lucille Hargrave, down-home, right-thinking folk, answer a knock at their front door and discover, to their astonishment, a “government man” holding the hand of the living and breathing — and blameless — embodiment of their 8-year-old son, Jacob, who’d drowned in 1966. Some reader will no doubt suspect that Mott’s novel is a silly zombie thriller, another plotless horror story about the putrefied dead pursuing the living ad nauseum. Readers who are more attuned to the uses of fiction may suspect the novel is a parable or allegory for the troubled times in which we live — big government intruding into the lonely, thwarted lives of ordinary

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people who long for a genuine spiritual awakening. Neither assumption is correct. The premise is straightforward: Jacob is one of thousands — probably millions — of dead human beings who return to the world of the living, bringing with them the disruptions such an event would entail. On a subliminal level, their reappearance plays on the guilt we experience when a loved one dies and we find ourselves overcome with a need to commune with them. What would we do differently if we were granted a second chance to interact with the loved and lost? For Lucille and Harold, both in their 70s, Jacob’s return is a blessing — and a startling discomfiture. In the decades since Jacob’s tragic death, the Hargraves have settled into a routine that allows them to cope with his absence. Now they must live in the world as it might have been and as it will be. Jacob, on the other hand, has no memory of having drowned and doesn’t know why he’s returned. He simply begins where he left off and hurries into the kitchen to catch up on all the eating he’s missed. “. . . there was the sound of Jacob sitting at the kitchen table, gulping down his lemonade and burping with great satisfaction. ‘Excuse me,’ the boy yelled.” How is it possible for the dead to walk the Earth again? Are these beings truly lost loved ones come back to life or are they sinister apparitions? Does their appearance signal the beginning of the end times? How does their intrusion affect belief in an afterlife? If the answers to these obvious questions are not contained in the novel, Mott does manage to touch on every human emotion — sadness, happiness, anger, disgust, compassion, rage, guilt and especially bigotry and fear, which are, finally, the overriding motivations for the actions taken by the True Living. As might be expected, religious belief comes into question. When the Hargraves first hear of the Returned, Lucille refers to them as the “devil,” The Art & Soul of Wilmington

November 2013 Salt  
November 2013 Salt  

The Art & Soul of Wilmington

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