Review: Unclaimed Baggage by Jen Doll

unclaimed baggageUNCLAIMED BAGGAGE is author Jen Doll’s first novel, although she’s also written extensively for various magazines and newspapers, and she also wrote a memoir before penning this young adult delight. Unclaimed Baggage centers on three flawed but very likable teens, all of whom work in the back room of Unclaimed Baggage, a store that sells the items inside lost and unclaimed luggage. The story is set in a small Alabama town, where not attending church is scandalous and everyone knows who did what. The baggage dealt with throughout the novel is in turns literal, emotional, and sometimes physical. During the novel, each teen must confront heavy challenges including sexual assault, alcoholism, and racial tension and attacks. What ties their responses together is their friendship and ability to support each other.

Doris is the focus of the novel, and she has been working at Unclaimed Baggage for a year or so. She hires both Nell, a recent transplant to Alabama from Chicago, and Grant, the local football star on a forced hiatus, and they become good friends over the summer. The teens spend their days unpacking and sorting the contents they find (just one dildo?), and deciding what to sell, throw out, or save for themselves or others. When they aren’t working, typical teenage outings and drama pop up. A trip to the waterpark and to the local balloon festival are highlights that develop both the teens’ personalities and deepen their friendships.

Doll’s choice to use alternating chapters for each character works to let the reader in on private thoughts and details that are revealed to the friends in later scenes. The first person narratives feel intimate and unassuming, as though we have stumbled upon a diary found in a piece of lost luggage. Occasionally there are chapters that focus on a purple suitcase, which later factors into a plot point that neatly (perhaps too neatly?) wraps up at least one of the storylines with karma.

The language used in the novel is authentic and individual to each character. Painful scenes involving the aftermath of assault and the depths of addiction are visceral without seeming overly-dramatic. In addition, while the inter-racial and long distance relationship between Nell and her boyfriend Ashton seems at first a bit devoid of conflict, it provides some of the scenes with the most impact. In a poignant scene after Ashton is attacked by a racist local while visiting Nell, she is forced to face her privilege and Ashton is straightforward in saying, “It’s not about you…You’re going to have to let me process this, and not make it your thing, you know?” Difficult enough for a teenager, and even more so for a teen who feels responsible for a boyfriend’s broken arm.

This same ability to go further than trite and rosy resolutions also provides strong scenes for Grant and the repercussions of his alcoholism and Doris’ grief at losing her aunt and dealing with being ignored by authority figures after a sexual assault. Each of these difficult topics is treated with a somber but lighthearted touch. Less serious developments like a lost little brother and a budding romance punctuate the events and keep the story moving.

Unclaimed Baggage is a fun read that touches on topics and concerns many teenagers will relate to . Highly recommended for ages 13+

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