When you're a teenager, everything is the best - or worst - thing that's ever happened to you. This is the blessing and curse of the years from age 12 to 20. What can match the all-consuming passion of your first crush, or the devastating assurance that no one has ever been through what you are going through, that no one could possibly understand how hard it is to be you? These emotions, in their painful, confusing, and worldview-altering messiness, are the subject of Once Was Lost, Sara Zarr's wonderful young adult novel, out this year in paperback.
I've been a fan of young adult fiction since long before I fell into its target audience and long after I outgrew it. In all those years of reading, rarely did I find a character asking the kinds of questions I was asking about life and especially faith. The tendency of Christian YA fiction is to veer toward the didactic; it's risky to allow characters to question their spirituality. But that is what makes Zarr's books (Story of a Girl, Sweethearts) such a treat: she uses the particular experience of being an American Christian teenager to explore the big questions that many struggle with long after high school.
Samara Taylor is definitely struggling. After a DUI lands her mother in New Beginnings, an upscale suburban rehab facility, Sam ends up home alone with her father, an overworked pastor who can face any problem except those in his own family. Then Jody Shaw, a 13-year-old girl in Sam's church youth group, disappears, and Sam's hometown and church take center stage of a national media circus. Sam can't help noticing that the circumstances have led to a lot of alone time for her dad and her single female youth leader who keeps trying to get her to open up about her problems. And just as she is pulling away from her closest friends, Sam stumbles into a relationship with Jody's older brother, Nick, who seems to be the only other person who knows what it's like to have your life upended by tragedy.
There are things we tell ourselves when tragedy strikes, things that are true and good and meant to keep us afloat, but that can lose their power when the reality of tragedy sinks in. When Sam's dad becomes the spokesman for the family of the missing girl, he addresses the national media to tell Jody, if she is out there listening, not to be afraid, because she has the love of her community and her God, and love drives out fear. His words are meant to soothe, but as they come out of her father's mouth, Sam is forced to confront the fact that real, embodied truths are more complicated than the truisms we settle for. "Love can't be the answer to everything," she says.
If it was, us loving Mom should have kept her from falling apart. Her loving us should have made her want to change … I've paid enough attention to his sermons to know that what Dad said wasn't exactly right. 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? And what else is he going to let happen to me?
These are not easy questions, and Sam doesn't find easy answers, though she finds some resolution in her relationships with her parents and Nick. That is part of what it means to grow up: to find a way to deal when people whom you love fail you, and to see that despite these failures, God can still work in and through such broken people.
Once Was Lost is not a book that exaggerates or exploits the heightened emotions of a teenager. Samara is dealing at an early age with events that would rock the world of a person at any age. When her youth group gathers to plan ways to help Jody's family, she says, "The last time the youth group got together on a non-Sunday was before most of them went on the mission trip. Nick had been there, I remember, playing Guitar Hero with Daniel. For some reason that memory makes me so sad, like it's just another thing that will never happen again, because how can you sit around playing video games, that carefree, once you know how life really is?"
It's difficult to write compelling fiction about a Christian character. It's easy to turn her into a caricature, to rob what defines her and every decision she makes—her relationship with God—of its richness and mystery. With young adult fiction, in particular, the temptation can be to preach, to model an example for how people should act rather than how they do act. But Zarr offers a suspenseful, angsty, and rich contemplation of what it means to doubt and trust, to love and risk, to curl inward and to reach out. More importantly, she reminds the Christian community that it's good to allow teenagers to ask questions and to wrestle with doubts.
As someone who works closely with teens in my church's youth group, I've come to believe that we expect too little of teens. We ask them in school to dissect Shakespeare; what are we asking them to do with their faith?