Posted by: Lizzie Ross | May 6, 2011

Religion and ethics for teen girls

Once Was Lost (2009), by Sara Zarr, 217 pp.

This coming-of-age novel, about a small town girl who wrestles with faith in God, in her father, in her community and in herself, is deceptively simple. You can read it in just a couple of hours. But its lessons resonate, and it ends up being about more than religion.

Sam (for Samara, not Samantha) is one of those pensive kids, where you know there’s a volcano brewing somewhere in her depths. Any parent has been through this stage with children, and the parent’s job is to remember her own childhood, her own sense of being misunderstood and unappreciated.

Zarr gives us this conflict from the child’s viewpoint, in Sam’s voice. Sam’s mother is in rehab (DUI), and her father, the local minister, hasn’t made any public statement about this. Sam feels he is pretending that it didn’t happen, pretending that their family is fine, but she sees problems everywhere she looks. When a local child goes missing, Sam’s faith in God begins to fade. She won’t tell anyone about her doubts and fears because she trusts nothing, not even her own feelings.

Is her father having a secret affair with the youth minister? Is Nick, her (possibly) new boyfriend, guilty of taking the child? As the town organizes to search for the little girl, Sam can’t set aside her own worries about her mother and father, which only adds to her burden — which is more important, the fate of that other child, or the fate of her own family?

Zarr has a knack for getting the voices of teens — for getting the right balance between their self-centeredness and their clumsy efforts to connect with others. Sam struggles to move closer to adulthood, and watching this struggle is a painful lesson for anyone who spends time with teens — as much as you want to push the child to speak, you quickly learn that pushing may just send them in the opposite direction.

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