Jen Doll is a journalist who penned the column "YA for Adults" for Atlantic Wire as well as a much-hyped article for New York magazine titled "The Thirtysomething Teen: An Adult YA Addict Comes Clean," so it isn't surprising that her debut young adult novel, Unclaimed Baggage, delivers a page-turning story of three unlikely friends navigating an abundance of current social issues confronting present-day teenagers. It's Doll's unflinching gaze at such complex and sometimes controversial themes that should appeal to any young person who has ever been underestimated for not being savvy enough to take on the challenges of the world around them.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018, $17.99
The trouble starts when Nell is yanked away from her suburban Chicago school, friends, and boyfriend to relocate to a small town in Alabama for her mother's new job. There she meets Doris, a potential new friend. Doris hires her to work at Unclaimed Baggage, a store that resells the items found in the orphaned luggage that accumulates in airports across the country. Not only has Doris been recently promoted to manager, but she has a skill for finding things, and in the course of the novel she locates lost items like keys and even missing people. She is soon forced to hire Grant, the disgraced high school quarterback, and this oddball trio of the local misfit, the exiled Yankee, and the popular jock begin to develop new friendships with each other while heading down some unexpected paths to face some wrongs in their childhoods as they verge on becoming adults.
Nell may have anticipated resigning herself to a dull summer in a small Southern town, but the issues making up the lives of her new friends and their families provide a modern-day Peyton Place. To name just a few of the issues: teenage alcoholism, sexual assault, unwanted pregnancy, sports-related injuries, deadbeat fathers, interracial prejudice, and religious zealots make up the novel's plot lines, as well the current popular conflict in YA literature, bullying. But Doll takes this now well-reported issue to another level of empathy and forgiveness, such as when Doris returns the lost stuffed animal to her nemesis, the popular cheerleader, and glimpses backward to "the eight-year-old little girl who wanted a stuffed animal, got it, and then lost it and everything else."
Of course, the unclaimed baggage is not just the junk and valuables the three new friends sort through from the boxes and luggage that arrive daily at their job—and kudos for Doll for letting them find literal sunken treasure at one point! The lost baggage is Grant's ruined career and reputation from drunken driving and one too many hard tackles; Nell's long-distance boyfriend and the town's (and even her own mother's) concerns for their interracial romance; and Doris's wounds from a childhood sexual assault and the death of her beloved Aunt. Doll manages to use this metaphor in a persistent yet subtle way that is reminiscent of Anne Tyler, at her best with The Accidental Tourist where the life of a travel writer with a tragic past is explained by his job that makes it impossible for him to stay too long in one place and grow attached. However, in this case the teenagers of Unclaimed Baggage long to become attached and be found for who they truly are by their friends and family, and, most importantly, themselves.
Jen Doll will read and sign at the Golden Notebook in Woodstock at September 22 at 2 pm.