Fifteen-year-old Samara Taylor has been raised in the secure environs of Pineview Community Church. As "the pastor's kid," she had always thought that once she entered high school, her faith would "come alive," blossoming in the atmosphere of "understanding and friendship and spiritual bonding" of her youth group community. Things have not turned out that way, though, and instead, Sam is awash in a sea of isolation and doubt. Her mom has crumpled beneath the pressure of maintaining the image of the perfect wife for her pastor husband, and is being treated for alcoholism in a rehabilitation facility. Her father, the epitome of wisdom and strength for his congregation, is clueless when it comes to ministering to the needs of his own family. Events come to a crisis for Sam when Jody Shaw, a thirteen-year-old member of the church youth group, disappears without a trace. The world as Sam knows it is turned upside down, the sleepy town of Pineview is thrown into the national spotlight in the worst of ways, and Sam's unexpected new friendship with Jody's brother Nick comes under fire when, in the absence of any real leads, he is cast under the shadow of suspicion in his sister's apparent abduction. Sam observes the irony of the fact that her mom who is in rehab is a better parent than her pastor father, who besides being emotionally unavailable to his wife and daughter, inconceivably seems to be developing an inappropriate relationship with the church's youth leader, Erin. Overwhelmed by all the suffering and brokenness around her, Sam cannot understand why God, if he even exists, "doesn't care, or doesn't do anything to stop it."
Sam wants desperately to believe in the power of love, in the innocence of Nick, in God, and in her family. When things seem as though they cannot get any worse, she does, in fact, experience an epiphany. At the height of her longing, she inexplicably finds "a sense, a hint, of...presence. Of...knowing it's going to be okay, and that she is not alone." Samara's faith is restored, or perhaps, more accurately, is newly discovered in the quiet, gentle knowledge that no matter how events turn out in the chaos all around her, there is undeniably "someone or something bigger than us who (like the Biblical Good Shepherd), would search the whole mountainside just to find that one lost thing that he loves, and bring it home."
Published in 2009, Sara Zarr's Once Was Lost is at once a fascinating mystery story and a moving, realistic exploration of difficult but pertinent issues of faith, human frailty, and coming of age. The characters are developed realistically and in-depth, especially Samara, whose honest and probing insights into her own actions and the behavior of those around her provide an authentic and sensitive portrayal of human and familial relationships, and the bittersweet experience of growing up.