Last week while we were celebrating the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, part of that dream came true.
It came with the publication of Jason Mott’s debut novel, “The Returned.” Mott sets his book in the fictional town of Arcadia in the very real Columbus County, where Mott grew up and still lives. Arcadia, says Mott, is a combination of Bolton, his hometown, Lake Waccamaw and Whiteville.
When King gave his famous speech in 1963, Columbus County was not much different than it was in the 1950s, when two local newspapers won Pulitzer prizes for their courageous reporting of substantial Ku Klux Klan activities in the area. It was the kind of place King dreamed could be transformed so that people would be judged by the content of their character rather than by the color of their skin.
What does Mott’s new book set in that county have to do with King’s dream? Mott, who is African-American, describes a fictional Columbus County where the race of its residents seems to make little difference.
To put it bluntly, you cannot tell the whites from the blacks. It is race neutral. Mott’s fictional characters then are judged by the content of their character, just the way Martin Luther King dreamed.
What about the real Columbus County? Not perfect, of course. But Mott says his home county is, for him, pretty much the way he describes it in his book.
What then is this race-neutral book about? Here is a short summary: almost 50 years ago Harold and Lucille Hargrave lost their only child to drowning on his eighth birthday. Now in their 70s, they respond to a knock at their door and are met by a federal agent who tells them he is returning their son, Jacob. The boy, or what appears to be their son, is still eight years old. He recognizes his parents even though they have aged. Harold and Lucille are too old for the job of rearing an eight-year-old, and they worry and wonder about who or what this returned “Jacob” really is.
Meanwhile, across the country and throughout the world, more and more of these returned people appear. Their growing numbers create numerous problems. Anti-returned popular movements emerge and threaten violence against the strange beings. The government orders that the returned people be collected and held in camps. One of these confinement camps is established in Arcadia. Little Jacob is held there, and Harold goes in with him.
Once Mott persuades his readers to believe this speculative premise of dead people reappearing, they must deal with moral questions that are raised by society’s treatments of the returned people. Mott says that his study of the confinement of ethnic Japanese in the United States during World War II had an impact on him. The confinement and discrimination against the returned people in Mott’s story also evokes memories of the Holocaust, slave codes, and the challenges of dealing with illegal immigration.
Mott is a talented storyteller and “The Returned” belongs in the tradition of other important books like “Gulliver’s Travels” and “1984,” which raised important social or political issues, but required the suspension of disbelief to appreciate the story.
“The Returned” should be a bestseller because it tells an entertaining and provocative story. But its success is assured because a new ABC television series, “Resurrection,” based on the book and starring Omar Epps, begins March 2014. For an introduction to the story, take a look at the trailer for the new television series at http://abc.go.com/shows/resurrection/blogs/news/sneak-peek-video.
It will make you want to watch the television series. Before that, read the book, and get the feeling that a small part of Martin Luther King’s dream has come true.
— D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV.