Fifteen-year-old Samara is fed up with a summer when everything is broken—the air-conditioner, the ceiling fan, the icemaker, even her family. While her mother is serving a “suggested” court-ordered rehab for DUI, her father, charismatic Pastor Charlie, has time and answers for everyone in their small town, except his wife and daughter. “Everyone thinks they know us, me. Everyone is wrong,” Sam explains. Left out of “non-Christian” activities on the weekends because she’s the pastor’s daughter, she sinks into depression and a crisis in faith in Sara Zarr’s Once Was Lost.

In the midst of Sam’s burgeoning doubt, 13-year-old Jody from her youth group disappears without a trace. As each day passes and the mystery continues, smothering hope and fueling rumors, no one is above suspicion. Red herrings run aplenty, duping readers to the very end. Time begins to stand still, as community members reach out to one another and Sam develops a relationship with Jody’s big brother. And as she realizes the reasons behind her father’s neglect, Sam begins to view him as a multifaceted, misunderstood figure, just like herself.

Once Was Lost is part realistic fiction, part mystery, part religious story and all together one gentle, smart read that features believable characters, flaws and all. Small-town life, for better or worse, is frankly depicted, too. For likeable, resilient Sam, who expresses her feelings to readers before she does to the rest of the world, her summertime struggle to reclaim her faith is more about reclaiming her identity.

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