Sarah Zarr’s novel Once was Lost is set in the fictional town of Pineview in northern California. As the novel begins, the story’s narrator, Samara, “Sam” or “Sammy,” Taylor is apparently maintaining a journal or diary, as the opening chapter begins with the preface, “Day 1; Saturday, early August. It is clearly, and unsurprisingly given the month, hot, although, judging by Samantha’s observations, hotter than usual:
“The whole world is wilting. Shriveling. Giving up. Dying. Maybe not the whole world. Somewhere, I guess, it’s not ninety-one degrees at four in the morning. I would like to be in that place. I would like to be somewhere, anywhere, that life feels possible and not smothered under a layer of heat and hopelessness.”
With this opening, one can immediately sense that the setting of Zarr’s story is unpleasant and unconducive to the dreams and aspirations of many teenagers – at least those not clinically depressed. Samara, however, may fall into this latter category. As details of her and her family’s lives are revealed, it becomes apparent that, if she’s not clinically depressed, she is, at a minimum, seriously distressed. Briefly commenting on a previous summer’s friendly, loving exchange between her parents, Samara caveats the depiction of this scene with the following comment: “For about seventeen minutes last summer our family worked the way it’s supposed to.”
Samara is accustomed to hearing bad news. Negative developments are a routine matter. Again, as she relates in her journal:
“Every day it’s something. Bad news. I wait for it, thinking of some of the information that has recently followed that statement. Grandpa s surgery didn’t go like we’d hoped. We’re not sure if we can pay the tuition at Amberton Heights Academy next year. Your mother s been in an accident. The air conditioner is on the blink, Dad says.”
To quote Kurt Vonnegut, ‘and so it goes.’ Specific, though, to the question of setting – “where does Once is Lost take place? – the answer, again, lies early in the opening chapter. Zarr has her narrator provide a detailed description of a small town in rural northern California where dullness is part of the ambience and religious fervor is represented out of proportion to the state’s population:
“Main Street in Pineview has exactly six not-so-creatively-named businesses: Petey’s Ice Cream The Casa Nova Mexican Diner (only open three days a week) Main Street Coffee Main Street Gas & Garage Main Street Bar & Grill (the grill part closed down years ago) Main Street Hardware. We’re two hours south of Medford, six hours north of Sacramento, and a day west of Denver, which puts us exactly nowhere. We have parades on Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and Christmas. The Ten Commandments are still inscribed on a monument outside City Hall even after three lawsuits. Once a year people from all over the West come here for the Migratory Bird Festival. There’s one public school for all grades, one private school (where I go, or went, I guess), one post office that s really a trailer off the pass, one library, and one grocery store where the whole town shops except for those who drive thirty-eight miles to the new Dillon s Bluff Wal-Mart. And seven churches, including Pineview Community, where my dad is the pastor.”
Pineview is, in short, everything Samantha Taylor hates. That her mother is a depressive alcoholic who has been institutionalized for her condition only fuels Samara’s discontent. Once is Lost, however, is not a story about the worst impulses of mankind or about the hopelessness of human existence. On the contrary, as the novel progresses, Samara begins to find solace, and a measure of positivity, in the very religion she earlier attempted to marginalize.