What We Lost – Sara Zarr

whatwelost“The whole world is wilting,” says fifteen-year-old Samara (Sam), the protagonist of Sara Zarr’s YA novel What We Lost.

She means the comment literally because it’s so hot that she wakes up every couple of hours “in a puddle of sweat,” but the observation is also figurative. Sam’s life is full of conflict and chaos. Her father, Charlie,  a pastor at the local church, is distracted and every day Sam wakes up to something “ruined or broken or falling apart.”

Part of the problem is that Sam’s mother is currently residing at the New Beginnings Recovery Center in an effort to get sober. Without her mother there, Sam feels adrift. There’s not enough money and Sam is tired of having to pretend that her mom just isn’t feeling well enough to attend church or other social functions. Things get even more complicated when Jody, a thirteen-year-old member of Sam’s church, goes missing  and Sam’s small town suddenly becomes a lens through which she is able to see all the world’s flaws, including her own.

I’ve read Zarr’s fantastic book Story of a Girl and her novel Roomies, which she co-wrote with Tara Altebrando, and which I also loved. Zarr has a real gift when it comes to creating empathetic characters and Samara is no different. Her fifteenth summer is a perfect storm of angst and confusion, suspicion and alienation.

I wish I understood what happened between then and now. I wish there was a way to put your finger on the map of life and trace backwards, to figure out exactly when things had changed so much…

As the town searches for Jody, Sam’s dad spends time with her family, acting as a sort of spokesperson. During this time, Sam grows closer to Jody’s older brother, Nick. He “could probably be a model” Sam observes, studying him the way “every girl who has ever known Nick has studied him.”

The problem with their blossoming friendship is that Nick is a suspect in the disappearance of his sister and Charlie doesn’t want Sam to hang out with him. Charlie also doesn’t want Sam to be alone; the town no longer feels safe. Sam is shuttled back and forth between her house and her best friend Vanessa’s. Sam has suspicions of her own; she wonders why her dad is spending so much time with Erin, the church’s youth group leader.

Zarr manages all these threads beautifully, allowing Sam her questions  about her faith in God,  suspicions about her dad, loneliness for her mom and feelings for Nick to percolate under the hot summer sun.

Great read.


Give a Boy a Gun – Todd Strasser


Todd Strasser’s topical novel Give a Boy a Gun  tackles a difficult and potentially divisive topic with a great deal of care and concern for all parties involved. As both a mother and a teacher, I found the book horrifying and troubling. Canada doesn’t have a gun culture per se. Sure, we own guns, but rifles for hunting mostly. In fact, “there are just two categories of individuals who are allowed an authorization to carry [handguns]: those who require one because of their occupations and those who need one for the “protection of life.” They need to get an authorization from the chief firearms officer for their province or territory. (http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/who-may-carry-handguns-in-canada-1.1135084)

Strasser’s story is framed as an investigation by Journalism student, Denise Shipley. She hears about the death of Gary Searle in the gymnasium of Middletown High, her alma mater, and she heads home to investigate. She says, “I spoke to everyone who would speak to me. In addition I studied everything I could find on the many similar incidents that occurred in other schools around our country in the past thirty years.” The story of Middletown is fiction, but the notes found at the bottom of many of the pages, are not. The facts and figures lend an air of authenticity to the story Denise discovers about Gary.

As classmates, teachers, parents and bystanders weigh in, a horrible picture begins to emerge of a student who is bullied and who finds a friend in another outsider, Brendan Lawlor. Brendan’s best friend Brett describes him as “smart and funny and a pretty good athlete.” While Brendan lived in Springfield he was ” a really cool kid. Popular too.” But things change when he moves with his parents to Middletown and he starts high school.

I am not so naïve as to think that there isn’t a pecking order in high school. I would like to believe that at the high school where I teach (on the East coast of Canada) it is not quite so pronounced as the school Brendan and Gary attend. There, they are openly picked on and the teachers and administration ignore it.

Brendan and Gary got picked on. That’s a fact. We all did. Little guys; fat guys; skinny, gangly, zit-riddled guys like me. Anyone who wasn’t big and strong and on a team got it. You’d even see big guys on the football team push around some of the smaller players. Middletown High is big and crowded, and you’ve got ten dillion kids in the hall at once. Maybe if it’s an all-out, knock-down-drag-out fight, some teacher will notice and try to stop it. But if it’s just some big jerk shoving you into a locker, who’s gonna see?

I believe we work very hard (with more success than failure) to cultivate an atmosphere of acceptance here, but it doesn’t take very long for the reader to see how the daily abuse that comes from being perceived as “different” affects Brendan and Gary. The novel clips along to its inevitable conclusion and although it makes for grim reading, I also think it’s an important topic and one that would certainly generate lively discussion.