In the world of fiction, tranquil country inns often become the stage for violence and mystery. So it is with the inn at the heart of “Coming Home” by Robert M. Chute, Maine poet, writer and professor emeritus in biology at Bates College in Lewiston.

“Coming Home” is billed as “A Maine Mystery,” and it fully lives up to that billing, with evocations of Maine’s enduring rural people on every page. Chute knows the territory well. His father once owned a country inn in Naples, and echoes of that experience lend the book a strong sense of authenticity.

The year is 1946. World War II is over, and those who went off to fight that war are coming home. Jim Johnson Jr., the lone survivor of an aircraft bombing crew that went down in the Pacific, has come back to his family’s inn on Long Lake, relocated in this novel to a western Maine point near the Canadian border. It is not a wildly joyous homecoming. Jim has been traumatized by the war, and he returns with a badly scarred body, uncertain about his physical and emotional future.

Around him, much is unchanged. Life in the small and tranquil town of Wyman Falls has gone on without him. Even as its tranquil surface remains, however, provocation and mystery await. Isolated, bewildered and out of touch with his own present, Jim confronts a mysterious dead body stored in a garment bag in one of the inn’s several cabins. Where has the body come from? Who can give it a name? What are the implications for Jim’s late father, who owned the inn? What does it mean for his aunt and uncle who still live there? And, most of all, what does it portend for Jim himself as he tries to unravel a mystery without clues?

Chute sets his story with flinty people living out their lives in a down-to-earth landscape. Nothing is easy. Nor do they expect it to be. The choices that life places before them often invite only a single, troublesome response.

In an earlier day, survival for Jim’s father involved bootlegging during Prohibition, transporting liquor across the lake from Canada. It was an industry that produced organized crime, which grew more powerful as the years went by. To what extent were any of these sinister forces involved with the mysterious body in the closet? And how would they react now to anyone who got in their way?

Jim has returned to Maine seeking peace and a place to heal. Instead, he learns that the eyes of the world may be on the carnage left overseas by the newly ended war, but he must focus much closer to home. And he must do so carefully to avoid placing himself and those he loves in danger.

Among those loved ones is his friend from childhood, Joan Chaplin Preble, married to a soldier who has built a permanent new life for himself in Hawaii. Joan has accepted the harsh reality that her husband, Otis, does not plan to return.

Her mother-in-law, however, has not, and her refusal makes it difficult, if not impossible, for Jim and Joan to reconnect. How they will resolve their romantic dilemma is one of the suspenseful subplots of “Coming Home.”

All in all, Chute has created a fast-moving story. “Coming Home” exudes a genuine sense of Maine’s landscape and how that landscape works to shape its people, male and female, young and old. Don’t look for glamorous folk here. Don’t look for yachts and waterside mansions. Don’t look for movie-star characterizations or the sheen of “Mad Men” and “American Idol.” They don’t flourish among the granite rocks and sandy shores that nourish this suspenseful story.

Chute reserves his powers for the genuine article — men and women strong at the core, steady as the wind blows and poised to protect and preserve their heritage.

“Coming Home” is more than “A Maine Mystery.” It’s a lasting Maine story, and Chute has told it well. 

Nancy Grape writes book reviews for the Maine Sunday Telegram.


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