Once Was Lost is a difficult book for me to review right now because it hits a little too close to home. At its heart, it's a book about a girl living through family life so painful that it causes her to question her long-held faith in God. It feels true. I'd wager even the most existential, post-modern progressive when faced with real grief secretly asks, "How could you? Why would you?" as Samara asks God when Jody Shaw goes missing. There's something about deep, unfair, unreasonable pain that causes those of faith to doubt and those without faith to reach out to something more. "I don't know when God stopped being someone I saw as a true friend, and turned into something I'm mostly confused about," thinks Sam as she sits in the youth group of the church where her father is pastor.
As Christmas passed and I said goodbye to the troubled little boy I've helped raise and grown to love over the past year, I found myself asking many of the same questions as Samara: "Why does everything have to be broken right now?" "How would they react if I really did share [the painful things going on in my life]?" "Why should I even have to ask [for help]? You don't need to be all-powerful and all-knowing to figure out that this is a tragedy in need of divine intervention." "What would I want someone to say to me if a person I loved disappeared?" And, "I wonder if I expect too much?" Samara's questions are relevant to anyone in the thick of life at its ugliest.
This book is heartfelt, moving, and thought-provoking. Not that it's perfect: the story line of the teen girl-gone-missing and the continued mystery of who-done-it feels lifted from Norma Fox Mazer's The Missing Girl and placed on top of an already full and complex emotional story-line. Also, after so much turmoil, I could have used a bit more of an ending than the slight puff of fresh air and hope that Zarr gives us. But the teen voice feels authentic, the family dynamics feel real, and though it's definitely not a light book, it never feels so heavy that it drags, and the main character almost never feels too over-involved in her own pain.
Once Was Lost is a good book for thinking and reflecting, for feeling and remembering. I recommend it to anyone who has lived through tough times and has found herself asking: Is there a God? And if so, where is he?
This review was originally published in January 2010, and has been updated for the January 2011 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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