It’s probably humanly impossible to not like a book with fluffy clouds and a little squirrel holding nuts on the cover. So far, I believe this to be 100% true.
‘Unclaimed Baggage’, while having nothing to do with now-endangered and very cute red squirrels, is just as adorable a book on the inside as it is on the outside, and if it’s that cover that draws you in (like it did me), so be it). It’s the goods inside though that will make you stay a while.
The title of the book is the name of the store that brings three new and unlikely friends together in small town Alabama. Doris has been working at Unclaimed Baggage for a while, and takes great pride in her work, unpacking suitcases that have lost their owners somewhere along the way on their journeys around the world, left at airports, unclaimed, unnamed. The contents of the bags are then sold in this unique store, which gets customers from all over the place, and even has an Instagram feed.
Nell is the newcomer, who has been made to move from the Chicago suburbs to this tiny Southern town, away from her boyfriend and BFFs, and at the start of the summer too. Forced to get a summer job by her rocket scientist mom, she fortunately meets Doris at the store.
And to round out the unlikely trio, we have Grant Collins, the hometown (but recently disgraced) football star, struggling with a drinking problem, having recently lost his girlfriend, as well as his way. His mom calls in a favor and gets him a job at the store, which is probably the best thing to ever happen.
Over the course of their summer (but barely a couple of my days) this trio is taken through a bonding experience like no other, and not only do they have infinitely a more exciting summer than I had, these unlikeliest of friends learn some big eye-opening things about the world.
Author Jen Doll is a smart writer, and beneath all the adorable quirkiness, she presents a whole host of issues that teens (and a lot of us, in fact), have dealt and might deal with: sexual assault, alcohol abuse (particularly how it’s accepted in certain groups in high school), grief and loss, racism, a particular brand of which is still especially pervasive in the South, as well as an expectation for everyone to subscribe to the same Christian dogma.
Doll also gives us these wonderful teen characters that challenge these issues in a way that I found, for a change, to be brave instead of obnoxious, to be thoughtful instead of preoccupied, and actually give us cause to be sympathetic to their faults (especially dear Grant).
One key element of this novel, underneath all that quirkiness which I just loved, is relationships, and since this is a contemporary YA novel, it’s worth noting that it isn’t filled with text conversations, and there are also positive family relationships in this book, with the parents actually feeling like real people. I’m finding this is becoming a rarity in my reading lately (is it really so bad to put that out there?). Additionally, the close relationship Doris had with her aunt Stella, who’s passed away, plays a big part in the book; the exploration of Doris’ grief and the influence she had on her, adds depth to this story and her character.
All of this though, is served up with heaps and heaps of Southern fried syrupy goodness and charm, or at least, a furry manatee, and suitcases with their own names. The ‘scenes’ at the store were so wonderful, I wanted more, with all these amazing artifacts and personal belongings from people all over the world ending up on their shelves with the teens wondering their backstories.
I also didn’t even mind the fact that Jen Doll uses the alternating ‘voices’ of Doris, Nell, and Grant, to tell the story, which is a writing device I was becoming tired of lately but in the case of ‘Unclaimed Baggage’, I found it worked well. The book is also divided up into the three months of the summer vacation, to give you a sense of time flow.
However ‘slow’ their (or anyone’s) summer went, I raced through this book. It is funny, quirky, thoughtful, and full of so much heart that I can’t help but love it to pieces.
*I gratefully received this ARC as part of Miss Print's ARC Adoption Program.").
This squirrel is being released into the wild on September 18th, ‘18.