When Christian Teens Doubt
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.