For 16-year-old Essie Rosenfeld, life in New York City revolves around a slowly-moving spiral of home, caring for her young sister and working tirelessly at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, where she earns just enough money to help support her family — and still have a few coins leftover for her true passion: hat-making.
It’s 1911 and the Rosenfelds, still grieving the loss of Essie’s father, are struggling to stay afloat. Essie’s mother has deteoriated into a shell of a woman, leaving her eldest daughter to care for Zelda, the baby she was carrying when her husband died. Exhausted and bitter, Mrs. Rosenfeld pushes her duties onto her eldest — who fights, also, to keep her younger brother in line.
It’s in the midst of this push-and-pull chaos that Essie meets Harriet, a young woman who arrives at the factory looking as out-of-place as a diamond on the factory floor. Essie is told to teach Harriet what she knows about the construction of shirtwaists — and Harriet, scared but desperate for employment, does her best to keep up. As their friendship grows, Harriet and Essie begin to lift one another from the frightened malaise that has taken over their lives — and maybe, possibly, give them the strength to move forward. Until the unimaginable happens.
Jacqueline Davies’ Lost is everything I just described, but it’s so, so much more than that, too. We can sit and classify the novel in a variety of ways — historical fiction; young adult — but nothing can truly come close to what actually happens here. I started the book at 8 p.m. on a weeknight, intending to just read until I got drowsy, and put it back down at 2 a.m. when I knew full well I’d have to be up in four hours. I read it straight through — without pause. And if I had it to read all over again, I’d probably do the same.
As readers, we understand from the get-go that Essie has recently endured some sort of trauma — and that her home life isn’t exactly as she’s describing. We know, basically, that there has been a death in the family . . . just as we know that Essie is unwilling, or unable, to recognize it. When Harriet arrives on the scene, Essie is struggling to piece together her memory from recent weeks — and to begin to understand what has happened to her.
More than anything, the novel felt like an exploration of grief . . . and as such, you’d expect it to be depressing, plodding and painful. But Davies writes with a light hand, showing us shades of Essie and revealing facts over time — never letting us get muddled down in the shadowy details. Each character became so real to me, vivid and beyond description — and even those I wanted to dislike, like Essie’s mother, were sympathetic figures. While Zelda was wild and “spoiled,” I couldn’t help but fall in love with her, too — especially since Essie clearly loved her beyond reproach. The love that Mrs. Rosenfeld couldn’t provide fell to Essie to give, and she had it in spades.
The juxtaposition between the boring, dull work Essie performed in the factory and the whimsical, imaginative and fun of her hat-making was interesting, too, and was the perfect way to showcase how talented Essie was — though her life in New York kept her mired in anything but creative pursuits. It was impossible not to want a hat from Essie — the devoted sister, the dutiful daughter. And, as in Harriet’s case, the loyal friend.
As a modern woman, factory life is impossible for me to imagine: the incredibly long hours in a hot, dirty factory, often without breaks; the painful, time-consuming work; the terrible lighting conditions; sharing a work space with so many other tired, exhausted women, and for so little pay. I work in a comfortable, air-conditioned office, where I’m compensated well for my work. I have a college degree. I get a lunch break. And at the end of the day? Well, if I ever got tired of what I do — or felt like I was being treated unfairly — I could leave. Get a new job. Move.
For someone like Essie? Well, that was out of the question. And when Harriet comes onto the scene — Harriet, the enigma — you realize just how out of the question it was for her, too. Learning about Harriet throughout the course of the novel, including the own secrets she wore close to her heart, was fascinating.
In fact, that’s a good word for Lost: fascinating. Full of rich imagery and unforgettable passages. And though it’s hard for me to classify in a few simple words, I’d recommend it very highly to fans of historical fiction and young adult — or anyone looking for a heartbreaking story. Not a novel I’ll soon forget.
4.5 out of 5!
Lost was read in conjunction with Nerds Heart YA, a tournament showcasing under represented young adult literature. Check back tomorrow for my review of Julie Hearn’s Rowan The Strange, and then visit to find out which of the two novels will advance to the next round! My decision will be made with Nicole of Linus’s Blanket and posted tomorrow evening.