Looking for God in the Ruins: Once Was Lost by Sara Zarr

So my first review for this blog is Once Was Lost by Sara Zarr which I read about a year and a half ago and reviewed for BookBrowse.com. I’ve been thinking about this book again following Anne’s comment the other day about the role churches can play in helping abused kids.

The thing that struck me about Once Was Lost is that adversity often causes us to search deep inside for the answers to deep, spiritual questions in the way that little else does. Once Was Lost is about this questioning and about the ability of church to answer these questions and to fail to do so in a most human way, even to add to the adversity. It was published in 2009, but I continue to think about it a lot.


Samara Taylor used to believe in miracles. She used to believe in a lot of things. As a pastor’s kid, it’s hard not to buy in to the idea of the perfect family, a loving God, and amazing grace. But lately, Sam has a lot of reason to doubt. Her mother lands in rehab after a DUI and her father seems more interested in his congregation than his family. When a young girl in her small town is kidnapped, the local tragedy overlaps with Sam’s personal one, and the already-worn thread of faith holding her together begins to unravel.

In her third novel, acclaimed author Sara Zarr examines the coexistence of affliction and hope, and what happens when everything you thought you believed—about God, about your family, about yourself—is transformed.


Once Was Lost was a difficult book for me to review when I first read it because it hit a little too close to home. At its heart, it’s a book about a girl living through family life so painful that it causes her to question her long-held faith in God. It feels true. I’d wager even the most Existential, Post-Modern Progressive when faced with real grief secretly asks, “How could you? Why would you?” as Samara does when Jody Shaw goes missing. There’s something about deep, unfair, unreasonable pain that causes those of faith to doubt and those without faith to reach out to something more. “I don’t know when God stopped being someone I saw as a true friend, and turned into something I’m mostly confused about,” thinks Sam as she sits in the youth group of the church where her father is pastor.

When I read this book, I was in the midst of saying goodbye to the troubled little boy I’d helped raise and grown to love for more than a year. I found myself asking many of the same questions as Samara: “Why does everything have to be broken right now?” “How would they react if I really did share [the painful things going on in my life]?” “Why should I even have to ask [for help]? You don’t need to be all-powerful and all-knowing to figure out that this is a tragedy in need of divine intervention.” “What would I want someone to say to me if a person I loved disappeared?” “And I wonder if I expect too much?” Samara’s questions are relevant to anyone in the thick of life at its ugliest.

This book is heartfelt, moving, and thought-provoking. Not that it’s perfect: the story line of the teen girl-gone-missing and the continued mystery of who-done-it feels lifted from Norma Fox Mazer’s The Missing Girl and placed on top of an already full and complex emotional story-line. Also, after so much turmoil, I could have used a bit more of an ending than the slight puff of fresh air and hope that Zarr gives us. But the teen voice feels authentic, and the family dynamics feel real and amazingly well-captured, and though it’s definitely not a light book, it never feels so heavy that it drags, and the main character almost never feels too over-involved in her own pain.

It’s a good book for thinking and reflecting, for feeling and remembering. I recommend Once Was Lost to anyone who has lived through tough times and has found herself asking: Is there a God?  And if so, where is he?



About pamwatts

Writer, Reader, and Children's advocate
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4 Responses to Looking for God in the Ruins: Once Was Lost by Sara Zarr

  1. abwestrick says:

    This book sounds really good, but her thoughts about God being something she was “mostly confused about” struck me as…timid. Soft on God. I’ve spent time being furious with God. More than confused–I have been angry with God. I’ve also moved through that anger to a place of forgiveness, but before getting to this place, the line in the Apostle’s Creed that resonated most with me was: “And he descended into hell.”

  2. pamwatts says:

    SPOILER ALERT: Her father is a minister who is having an affair with the RE director while her mother is in re-hab for alcoholism. And then it turns out that the music director is the one who abducted her friend from the youth group. Perhaps this explains why she is soft on God?

    But I don’t know. I guess it didn’t bother me. I’m probably soft on God, myself. I mean, I am actively seeking truth (often, at least) but mostly I just come up confused, too. So maybe that resonated with me. But if you read it, definitely let me know what you think.

  3. Pingback: Spiritual Books for the Hurting Chickpea | Strong in the Broken Places

  4. Pingback: Choosing Life: Review of How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr | Strong in the Broken Places

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