Once Was Lost

Once Was Lost by Sara ZarrOnce Was Lostby Sara Zarr
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 224 pages

As a pastor’s kid, it’s hard not to buy into the idea of the perfect family, a loving God, and amazing grace. But lately, Sam has a lot of reasons to doubt. Her mother lands in rehab after a DUI, and her father seems more interested in his congregation than his family. When a young girl in her small town goes missing, the local tragedy overlaps with Sam’s personal one, and the already worn thread of faith holding her together begins to unravel.

In her third novel, acclaimed author Sara Zarr examines the coexistence of affliction and hope, and what happens when everything you thought you believed—about God, your family, and yourself—is transformed.

There are books that don’t seem much at first glance. They’re the ones that have only a few copies on the bookstore shelves, ones that rarely gets featured in its own section, ones that people (including me) would have ignored if it weren’t for some other thing. In my case, I have read the author’s other works.

I can’t say I’m a fan of Sara Zarr, but I have read her two other books, Sweethearts and Story of a Girl and liked them well enough for me to notice her new book, Once Was Lost. It took me a while to finally crack its covers though, and once I did, I couldn’t get out of the town of Pineview and from Sam’s life.

Once Was Lost starts out one hot summer day, when everything in Sam’s house seemed to be broken. Just like the book, the introduction was quiet and unassuming, but we know from the start that Sam is trying hard to deal with her situation without totally breaking down. Her mother has been in rehab for three weeks because of drinking, and instead of finding solace from her dad, she finds him more distant from her as he seemed to care more for his congregation than anything else, like compare annuity rates and the sad state of their family. The thing was, no one knew about Sam’s situation and she didn’t want to talk about it, not even to her youth group leader Erin or her best friend Vanessa. It would have just been a sad summer, but when thirteen-year-old Jody Shaw is abducted, Sam’s life is turned upside down. As she grapples with the tragedy that affected not only her but the entire town, Sam finds herself asking questions she had never thought of asking before, and wondering if she will ever find the answer to them.

This book is poignant. That’s the term. There is something about Sara Zarr’s writing that immediately touches the heart and leaves a mark, urging the reader to not just read but think. Zarr wasn’t afraid of lay it down hard on the reader and the use of such a scary ordeal — abduction — was an effective device to make all her characters grow. In a way, I felt like I was one of the residents of Pineview when Jody disappeared — I wanted to join them in the search, I wanted to join them in the prayer vigil, I wanted to send some comfort to the family in a trying time. At some point, I felt like praying for Jody, too, even if she was just a fictional character.

Sam is a sad character, but sad for the right reasons. You’d expect that a pastor would know how to be a good father, too, and I was annoyed for Sam as I see how her dad treats her, or did not treat her. But in a way, I can also understand why her dad acted that way. If you’re a person of importance, particularly in a church community, everyone expects you to always be okay. People looked up to Sam’s dad for spiritual guidance, and the pressure of having to be the God’s representative to the people is hard, and sometimes it’s easier to just not acknowledge the situations or ask the question when you’re not sure of what the reactions or answers will be.

But still, we’re only human. I think that was one of the important lessons in the book: that we are all just human. And God understands if you can’t bear everything that is happening — in fact, I don’t think He expects us to bear it all, at least on our own. Sam tried to hide it all, and just go along with whatever’s happening, but in the end, she learned that she didn’t have to carry it all on her own, and her family doesn’t have to either.

This isn’t a Christian book, but it read like one because of the setting and the situations. I liked how it showed community, and how people cope in the face of such a scary tragedy. I liked how it showed how Christians aren’t always happy (because we aren’t), and I liked how it wasn’t afraid to ask difficult questions, questions that I am sure everyone of us asked at one point or another. Some examples:

I want to close my eyes and ask for what’s right, and open them and have everything fixed. As I try to form the words, I only get angry. Why should I even have to ask? You don’t have to be all-powerful and all-knowing to figure out that this is a tragedy in need of divine intervention. (p. 38)

Perfect love drives out fear, is what it says in the Bible. Perfect love. And who, my dad included, really knows anything about perfect love? Anyway, if God loves Jody so much, how could he let this — whatever it is — happen to her? And what else is he going to let happen to me? (p. 62)

In a way, I could relate my experience of the flood last year with this book. I don’t think I doubted God then, but I had a lot of big questions, and I had no answers. I often relied on my own strength during those times when the strength I needed was freely offered to me, I just didn’t know if I should take it. Sometimes I think we’d rather just keep asking questions and focus on our fears and problems rather than see that there’s Someone who’s willing to not only share the burden, but actually take it from us.

But I digress. Sara Zarr’s writing was spot on, just like in her previous novels. Lines like these just make me stare at the page and wonder how can such simple sentences have so much impact?

And love can’t be the answer to everything. If it was, us loving Mom should have kept her from falling apart. Her loving us should have made her want to change. (p. 61)

There’s a blue ribbon around the Hathaways’ mailbox. When we’re sitting out here two weeks from now, in a month, in a year, will the ribbons still be up? I wonder how you’re supposed to know the exact moment when there’s no more hope. (p. 101)

I think that’s enough to say that I thought this was a remarkable novel. This isn’t just your ordinary contemporary YA novel. Once Was Lost makes you think, makes you ask, and in the end, makes you believe that no matter what the tragedy is, no matter how hard things are, there will always, always be hope. :)

Rating: [rating=4]

2010 Challenge Status:
* Book # 64 out of 100 for 2010

Cover and Blurb: Goodreads

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