Lost by Jacqueline Davies

Sixteen-year-old Essie Rosenfeld has had a hard life growing up on New York’s Lower East Side in the early 1900′s.  Her father dies when she is just ten, and her mother never really recovers from his loss.  When Essie’s mother gives birth to a daughter eight months after her husband’s death, she shows no interest in the child and leaves ten-year-old Essie to name and raise her younger sister. Zelda means more to Essie than anything else in the world and she is heartbroken when she turns sixteen and must leave Zelda during the days and evenings to work in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.

While working at the factory Essie meets and forms a friendship with the mysterious Harriet, a young woman whose husband has died, and is living and working in the city with no family.  Essie shows Harriet the ropes, and becomes her constant companion.  But both girls have something to hide, and neither is willing to reveal the secrets that they would rather not reveal, until terrible circumstances force both their hands.

I was immediately excited about this novel because it explores a fascinating time in New York History and is partially set in one the most infamous factories of the city’s history.  While I found the story to be moving in several places, it ultimately failed to capture my attention throughout the entire novel.  The time period being explored in Lost is particulularly gritty, the neigborhood where Essie grew up, a tough one, and the working conditions of women and chilren in the factories were notoriously grim, but that never really translated for me in this novel.  I thought that Essie was hard working and stuck in an unfortunate situation with being so responsible for her sister, but the events related throughout the story were written in such a gentle manner, that I found them lacking in urgency.

The novel unfolds in dual time periods with chapters that alternate between Zelda’s birth and the present time when Essie is working in the factory, and by the end the time periods have synchronized. As much as Zelda is mentioned, and seen at different stages in her life, she never became for more to me than a bratty child.  The novel hinged on believing in the relationship between these sisters, and I never really liked  Zelda (I know, I’m terrible for talking this way about a six-year-old).  This is a first person narrative in a story that would have benefitted from having some of the other characters fleshed out a bit more than Essie is able to do.  Essie is at a point in her life where she is hiding out from her past and always rushing to and fro.  She isn’t able to give much insight into the other characters because she herself is steeped in denial, and that made it hard for me to get a feel for her relationships  much less care about them very much.

Davies has a pleasant and flowing prose that is easy to read, and while her descriptions could have gone a bit further, she did conjure up an approximation of the neighborhood and the dialect of the immigrant families.  I felt apart of the hustle and flow of life, if not appalled by the circumstances and conditions.  While this novel does well when serving as a general introduction to the time period, and the Lower East Side neighborhood, I would recommend looking elsewhere for a more nuanced portrayal of life in this time period.  While the story proves compelling enough for me to wonder what would happen next, I wanted to feel more for the characters  than I did.

Leave a Reply