“I’ve been a little busy, sweetheart.”
I want to say: I know, but it’s Mom. She’s your wife. You’ve got time to sit around the church office joking with Erin.
But how can I complain? Jody’s parents don’t even know if their daughter is alive. At least we know where Mom is. I get up for water. When I press my glass against the ice maker in the fridge door, a grinding sound comes from inside the freezer, followed by a loud clunk, before the whole thing kind of shudders and goes dead. Half a cube of ice drops into my glass. I stare at it, feeling the tears building.
Why does everything have to be broken right now? I think of Job, in the Old Testament, who lost everything. He didn’t just lose everything, God took everything away from him—his wife, his kids, everything he owned. Despite it all, Job kept on believing that God knew what he was doing. Well, I don’t. I hit the fridge door with my open hand, hard, and it’s all I can do not to smash my glass onto the floor.
“Sam, easy,” Dad says.
I turn around. I want him to give me answers, but I can’t even ask the questions. And he just looks at me like I’m the one with issues.
Author: Sara Zarr
Notes: Of late, I find myself hungry for fiction that deals with religion in human, intimate, sympathetic ways. Not Christian bookstore fodder with flat characters and proper conversions; not l'esprit-du-temps mockery that portrays religion as a device for control and the religious as backward, ignorant, arrogant bigots; but the real thing as experienced by honest-to-goodness religious people. A great yearning, a desperate search, at times an otherworldly comfort and inexplicable love. A collection of people fighting for and against each other, doubting, trusting, giving, taking, cursing, blessing, despairing, and hoping beyond hope, calling on a God who alternately seems less real than fairies and more real than walls and floors and science experiments.
The ability to portray this is why I loved Brideshead Revisited; it’s much of why I love Orson Scott Card. George MacDonald does it well. It’s something I’ve felt traces of in Shannon Hale’s work, and even in The Wheel of Time on occasion. The hope of that is what made me pick up Sara Zarr’s Once was Lost—now retitled What We Lost, though I rather prefer the former with its reference to the hymn "Amazing Grace".
Inspired by the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping case, Once was Lost tells the story of a teenage pastor’s daughter whose faith and family have already begun coming apart when a thirteen-year-old girl from the youth group disappears. Samara “Sam” Taylor has it rougher than the average pastor's kid; her mom just went into rehab for alcoholism, and her dad is spending a little too much time chatting up the pretty youth leader instead of making sure his daughter is surviving her mom’s absence. Then Jody Shaw disappears, and Pastor Charlie throws himself into being there for the Shaw family—easier for him, in the moment, than taking care of his own. Crises of faith are a relatively normal part of growing up religious; when Sam’s hits, neither of her parents are around to talk her through it.
The story is well written, ambient and intimate, stylistically and thematically reminiscent of Sarah Dessen or (a mild PG-rated version of) John Green. Sam narrates in first person and present tense, offering her doubts and frustrations and ideas as she experiences them. Though she is forced to confront issues like child abduction and serious family dysfunction, her voice—due to her innocence—keeps things comparatively light. Not cheerful, but bearable. The relationships carry the story arc, and together they move at a quiet, late-summer pace toward resolution.
There’s a light romance, some working through the challenges of friendship, small town dynamics, a little mystery and suspense, forgiveness, anger at God and yearning toward him. Taking all of that in, it’s one of the more easygoing, gentle reads I’ve come across lately, something I could pick up and enjoy, put down and think over.
Possibly it’s an overreaction, but my general experience of reading about a crisis of faith is to fear the end of the story—fear it will turn into an atheist’s conversion tale or even the aforementioned mockery. To my relief, the end of Sam’s story is touched with grace. It’s a tempered thing; not proselytic, but believable and hopeful. Zarr displays a tender, optimistic empathy throughout the last chapters, something I appreciated and felt very much in tune with. It left me confident that Sam and her friends, whom I’d learned to love, would be okay—and that I might rather enjoy tracking down another Sara Zarr novel.