Books on GIF #99 — 'Unclaimed Baggage' by Jen Doll

Welcome to the latest edition of Books on GIF, the animated alternative to boring book reviews. This Sunday's selection is ‘Unclaimed Baggage’ by Jen Doll.

This is the first young-adult novel I’ve read in a while that isn’t related to ‘Star Wars.’ (Feel free to check out my reviews of ‘Ahsoka’ by E.K. Johnson and ‘Splinter of the Mind’s Eye’ by Alan Dean Foster should you need a galaxy far, far away fix.) It’s also the first time I’ve reviewed a book written by someone I know personally. I’ve got a whole shelf full of books written by friends and acquaintances, with more to come soon. (I’ll snag Julia Kelly’s ‘The Light Over London,’ which was recently released, and Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s ‘Fleishman Is in Trouble’ when it comes out later this year.) I was initially worried about reviewing Jen’s book because what if I didn’t like it, gave it a bad review and then saw her at a party or something? It would be:

But good news! I really enjoyed Jen’s book. It’s fun, charming and insightful, and it follows three teenagers — Doris, Nell and Grant — from a small town in Alabama working a summer job in the stockroom of a store called Unclaimed Baggage that sells items from lost luggage. Grant is a star football player who’s got a drinking problem. Nell is new to town after her family relocates there from Illinois. And Doris … I’ll come back to her. Over the summer they become a close, if unlikely, team, like:

The trio bond over the items pulled from baggage. They are scandalized by a sex toy found in one suitcase, and bury it together in a shallow grave out behind the store. They solve the mystery of the empty, yet weirdly heavy, suitcase. They puzzle over the plush manatee found in a child’s bag. They also grapple with Grant’s drinking and depression, Nell’s adjustment to new surroundings and whether she’s really in love with the boyfriend she left behind, and Doris’s trauma over an assault years ago at the water park and her grief over the death of a beloved aunt. Along the way, the friends also tackle racism, gender inequality, underage drinking, mean girls, the legacy of divorce, the Confederate ‘heritage’ of the South and the close mindedness of religion. They gain strength from each challenge, and I was genuinely interested in seeing each character learn, grow and:

Doris was my favorite character. She’s politically liberal, isn’t afraid to jump into a fistfight and has a knack for finding lost things (and people). I’d love a sequel (or a whole series) based around her reuniting people with long-lost objects or forming a private detective agency. She’s suffered through pain and loss, but has channeled it into a streetwise charm and a sense of justice. When she discovers the origin of the stuffed manatee and reunites it with its owner (I won’t spoil it), it was such a noble act of forgiveness and empathy that I was like:

Jen’s book is well written, and refreshingly earnest and un-snarky. Maybe I’ve lived in New York for too long, but I kept waiting for one of the friends to betray the others. That never happened. They stand by and support each other through ups and downs, and I thought the book contained great examples for young people about friendship; about how to understand, care for and support others; and about forgiveness. I think many adults also would enjoy and benefit from the book. Well done, Jen!

How it begins:

A clang rang out through baggage claim as the carousel groaned into action. Arriving passengers jockeyed for positions around the metal edges of the machine, craning their necks and tapping their feet, as desperate for a glimpse of their luggage as they would be to see friends or family members.

Some bags had been wrapped in plastic by nervous people; others had bright ribbons tied around the handles to distinguish them from one another. There was a bossy sign warning everyone to make sure the luggage was indeed their own before leaving the terminal, but hardly anybody took time to do that. In haste, mistakes had occurred.

A little boy frolicked along the raised metal edge of the carousel, shouting, “Look at me!” until his weary mother collected him. “Excuse me” was the law of the land, though it was generally uttered in a way that was less polite and more “Outta my way. Can’t you see I’m standing here?!” There were elbow nudges and rude remarks and “Hey, watch it, buddy!”s. Slowly but surely, the passengers filed out into the world, taking with them their precious belongings, compactly contained in suitcases that most of the rest of the time were confined to the undersides of beds or the backs of closets.

With a low squeal, the carousel halted. A new flight would be in soon, and the same thing would happen, and then again.

For now, no one paid any attention to the suitcase that remained. It was small and purple and leopard-printed. It was a bag intended for adventures, intended for life. But its owner had failed to retrieve it, so it sat alone in the middle of the quiet baggage carousel, in the very place it was not supposed to be.

My rating:

‘Unclaimed Baggage’ by Jen Doll was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 2018. 379 pages. I received a copy from the publisher.

In case you missed it: Books on GIF #98 featured ‘Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger’ by Soraya Chemaly.

What’s next: In two weeks you’ll get a review of ‘No Matter How Much You Promise to Cook or Pay the Rent You Blew It Cauze Bill Bailey Ain’t Never Coming Home Again’ by Edgardo Vega Yunqué (I promise!). Also in the queue are ‘Asymmetry’ by Lisa Halliday, ‘Thin Rising Vapors’ by Seth Rogoff and ‘Postcards From the Edge’ by Carrie Fisher, among others. 

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Thanks for reading, and thanks especially to Donna for editing this review!

Until next time,