Kidnapping. Alcoholism. Loss of faith. Budding romance. Distant parents. Distant friends. Depression. All in a novel that’s about as thick as my pinky finger. Sounds sort of awful, doesn’t it? Luckily, this novel was written by Sara Zarr, who is more than capable of packing a lot into a slim volume – both in terms of content and emotional impact.
In Once Was Lost, Zarr parallels the many small tragedies in one person’s life with a larger tragedy in the community. Sam is hurting, and the religion that has been a comfort to her for so long has turned confusing and constricting. But where can Sam take her questions? Not to her dad, the local pastor, who seems to have time for everyone’s crises except Sam’s. Not to her youth group friends, who can’t help seeing Sam as the pastor’s kid and don’t include her in social activities that Pastor Charlie might frown on. And certainly not to her mother, who hasn’t called Sam once since being forced into rehab after a drunk driving accident.
While Sam is dealing with her own difficult issues, a young member of the congregation goes missing. Jody Shaw’s disappearance brings the church and town communities together in many ways, and Sam throws herself into the search efforts. While the mystery of what happened to Jody may seem like it would be the center of the book, in reality it acts more as a catalyst for Sam’s personal issues. By pushing her dad even further into his work and bringing a sense of immediacy to Sam’s questions about her faith, this tragedy becomes a major part of Sam’s internal struggle.
Perhaps the saddest and most fully realized part of Zarr’s novel is Sam’s relationship with her father. Every time Pastor Charlie dashes off to help a member of his congregation, leaving his struggling daughter to fend for herself in questions of faith and questions of what to have for dinner, my heart broke a little bit. Sam’s pain is so obviously visible, but the person who has always been closest to her cannot see it – or chooses not to. The difficulties Sam faces in the community and in relating to her dad are handled exquisitely in the novel. This seems to be a story that hits close to home for Zarr, and in writing it she has given us her best book so far.
Sara Zarr on the web.
Review copy provided by publisher at BEA.