Fresh off of her acclaimed and inventive memoir Save the Date, author Jen Doll is back with a book that perfectly reflects her literary passion: a YA novel.
Unclaimed Baggage, due Sept. 18, centers on three teens living in Alabama. Doris — a lone liberal in a small, conservative town — has mostly kept to herself since the terrible waterslide incident a few years ago. Nell had to leave behind her best friends, perfect life, and too-good-to-be-true boyfriend in Chicago to move to Alabama. Grant was the star quarterback and epitome of “Mr. Popular” whose drinking problem has all but destroyed his life. What do these three have in common? A summer job working in a store called Unclaimed Baggage cataloging and selling other people’s lost luggage.
“Unclaimed Baggage takes place largely at a store where items never claimed from airports are sold to new owners,” Doll says to EW. “It’s a fictionalized version of a real Alabama store, and along with the inherent mystery of lost luggage, I wanted to tackle how we all feel like misfits — we’re all struggling to find our stuff, our meaning, our place. And while there’s some baggage we need to shed, other bits and pieces that we’re carrying around can make us stronger when we hold onto them. In either case, a true friend can lighten the load.”
Doll is perhaps best known for her “YA for Grownups” column in The Atlantic, where she discussed diversity in the YA industry as well as its broader evolution, and her reviews of YA books in The New York Times. “I love, love, love young adult literature — for its immersive writing and themes, how its writers don’t hide from those real, big, earnest, honest aspects of life, and how reading exactly the right book in the right moment can transform a person,” Doll explains.
Read on below to check out the exclusive cover as well as an excerpt of Unclaimed Baggage, and pre-order the book here.
Excerpt from “Unclaimed Baggage,” by Jen Doll
HELLO. I speak to you from where I stand amid hundreds, maybe thousands, of boxes, bags, trunks, containers, and suitcases. I’m in the stockroom of the store where I work, Unclaimed Baggage, which is a place that, yes, sells baggage that was never claimed from airports and other transit hubs to lucky new owners. Think of us as an animal shelter for goods. Does anything here look like you could give it a forever home?
As usual, I’m alone in the back. I pick up the microphone I just found in the suitcase I’ve been unpacking. It doesn’t have batteries, so humor me. Is this thing on?
Please allow me to share my Number One top talent, the thing that will make me famous if ever I go on a reality TV show or participate in a Miss America pageant (two things I will surely never do). Are you ready?
Wait. I should probably manage expectations. If you’re like most people, you’re not going to be that impressed by what I’m about to reveal. You’re going to say, Anyone can do that. All you have to do is pay attention. Or, maybe you’d be harsher: That’s a dumb talent. That’s not even a talent! Ugh, show me your baton, girl — get out there and twirl! To which I would say, stop being so sexist and give me a chance to speak, please. Even if I am just talking into a dead microphone in a stockroom full of used items.
My name is Doris. I am sixteen, and — along with slightly ragged fingernails (I’ve promised myself this will be the year I finally stop biting them); long, so-dark-everyone-says-it’s-black-but-it’s-really-dark-brown hair; and two chocolate-colored irises that give looks described as both “penetrating” and “pugnacious” — I come complete with a love of lists (especially those that include parentheticals!), a passion for drawing, and the “gift of gab,” which is how my aunt Stella used to tease me about how much I talk.
I also bear the distinction of being pretty much the Number One weirdo liberal agnostic in my minuscule Alabama town, which gives all kinds of grief to my parents. When I decided to petition against the school-sanctioned prayer at each football game, Mom and Dad retaliated by praying louder than anyone. You’d think adults would be over that kind of stuff, but nope: The desire to fit in appears to be a lifelong human condition. Unless you’re like me, I guess.
But back to that talent.
Imagine me leaning in close to the mic, gesturing a little, dropping my voice to a sultry whisper: I can find things. Your lost keys. The neighbor’s missing cat, awkwardly named Pussy. Maya Bloom’s retainer, let us never speak of that dark day again — the smell of the dumpster in which it was located is lodged permanently in my left nostril. Billy Pickens’s trombone, which didn’t really go missing so much as it was purposely tossed into my backyard on the last day of school because, top secret intel: Billy Pickens despises trombone. Or my mom’s sunglasses: Nine times out of ten, they’re right on top of her head.
It’s not a superpower — that would be fairly lame, as superpowers go. Who’d pick finding things over flying or shooting fire from their eyes or being able to turn water into Diet Coke? But it’s been helpful, I have to say. Not just personally, but professionally: I find things for my job.
Or, more accurately, Things find me.
Think about all the flights around the world happening at the same time, and how if even one percent of that luggage doesn’t make it back to its owner, pretty soon you’ll have a massive pile on your hands. What happens to all that stuff? Airlines try to reunite people with their belongings, but they don’t always succeed. After a certain amount of time, those orphaned items are sold to stores like Unclaimed Baggage and auction houses where people show up to bid for suitcases they aren’t even allowed to look inside. You might hit it big, or you might end up with a pile of soiled shirts. Game of chance, meet laundromat.
Most days I work in the stockroom, going through shipments. What I find ranges from the spectacular (a vintage Oscar de la Renta gown with only a tiny spot at the hem; I could have worn it to prom, if I had any interest in such things) to the abysmal (old boxer shorts that require me to disinfect myself with an entire bottle of hand sanitizer). Even better, I find those items — well, not the boxer shorts — homes. For example:
- The doll that made my old piano teacher, Mrs. McClintock, cry because it was a replica of the one her grandpa had given her when she was a tiny girl.
- The skateboard that class stoner Bruno Havens yanked out of my hands with the only scream of joy anyone’s ever heard Bruno Havens emit because it was signed by some famous skater named Tony. Then Bruno actually hugged me, which is unprecedented.
- The designer purse sold out everywhere that Ms. Lee, our extremely stylish vice principal, simply had to have. I kept it hidden in the back until she could pick it up, ensuring my path to a really good college rec letter, even if I am a Godless heathen.
I’ve been working at Unclaimed for two summers now, so I’ve seen plenty of stuff come and go. It’s a lot like life that way. Everyone’s always looking for something. And we’re all carrying around the memories of what we’ve lost. Which, by the way, is far more than just possessions.
For example, my closest friend, Maya Bloom, who’s not only the one Jewish teenager in our town, but also the only lesbian who’s actually out (a lot of people around here seem to think that’s worse than not being so sure about the existence of God), got a job as a camp counselor in Mentone this summer, so I’m here, left behind, my life the same but also different. I miss her, but at least I know she’ll be back.
Then there are more permanent rifts: Friendships that go awry and can’t ever be fixed. You can lose your mind, your heart, your dreams, your community, your job. You can lose someone you love. Or, to a less tragic extent, your virginity (my parents would be relieved to know I still have my own). Even age disappears, year after year. In two more years, high school will be gone. I’ll head off to college, and all of this life I’ve had here will be, well, if not lost, closed. A chapter behind me.
Earlier today I was heading back to the stockroom after my lunch break when I found a kid. This kid was alone and loitering near the toy section, but he wasn’t paying attention to any of the toys. That set off the alarm bells. He was five or six years old, a chubby boy with spiked-up hair and cargo shorts and a frown on his face. He looked at me, and I knew.
“You’re lost,” I said, and his big, round eyes, they got hopeful.
“My mom is here somewhere,” he said, and I said, “Of course she is.” I took his hand, which was slightly sticky. He squeezed mine back in a way that felt like he was preparing to hold on for dear life.
“Don’t worry, we’ll find her,” I told him, and walked him over to Customer Service, where my nemesis, Chassie Dunkirk, was waiting to return a pair of sparkly high-heeled shoes. Her boyfriend, Mr. Football Player Champion of the World (or at Least Our Small Town), Grant Collins was holding her name-brand purse. I noticed Chassie had her arm in a sling. More worrisome than what I guessed was a cheerleading injury was the fact that their lips were pressed against each other’s so hard I was afraid they might pass out on the floor in front of me.
“Ahem,” I said, causing them to turn around. That’s when I saw that Chassie wasn’t with Grant Collins at all. She was making out with a senior who graduated in May, which is pretty shocking information, because in the history of our town, it’s never not been Chassie and Grant.
“Oh. excuse us,” said Chassie.
The guy looked at me and then at the floor, and I remembered his name. Mac Ebling. He’d been on the football team with Grant.
Chassie noticed the kid clutching my fingers. “Blake Jarvis,” she said, “you’ve got chocolate on your shirt.” She rolled her eyes and turned back to Mac: “Let’s get out of here. I’ll just keep the shoes. My arm hurts, and this place smells like mothballs and death.”
“I’m lost!” Blake Jarvis announced forlornly, but Chassie was already out the door, Mac Ebling’s hand tucked snugly into the back pocket of her denim shorts. I gently tugged my charge toward my boss and the owner of Unclaimed Baggage, Red Finster.
“Found a new friend, Doris?” he asked. “Blake Jarvis, where’s your momma? I really liked that duet you sang together at the church concert last week. That was real pretty.”
Suddenly I understood why everyone seemed to know Blake Jarvis except me — they all go to church together. Church is big in my town. Church and football, which I don’t care much about, either. A bunch of jocks hurting each other and themselves as people stand around and cheer? No, thanks.
Blake Jarvis tried to smile, but his lip quivered. “I. Don’t. Knowwwwww,” he answered, his face crinkling into a pool of almost-cry.
“Wanna make an announcement for her?” offered Red, and Blake Jarvis shook his head up and down, a hard affirmative. I led him over to the little stairs that take you up to what Red calls the Customer Service throne, and Red held the microphone for him.
“I’ve been found, Momma! Momma, where are you?” he said, and while the store let out a collective “aw” at the tiny voice emanating from the sound system, Red stepped in. “Gail Osteen, Blake Jarvis is at the Customer Service desk. Please pick him up at your leisure.” Within minutes, there were the same hopeful eyes, with a neat bob rather than the spiked-up hair.
“Blake Jarvis Osteen, I told you to wait outside the dressing room like a good boy, and off you go running around — you nearly scared me to death!” said Mrs. Osteen, who smelled like vanilla and was holding several one-piece swimsuits with ruffled bottoms. She hugged her little boy, and he pointed to me.
“She found me!” he said, and though Mrs. Osteen looked at me kind of funny at first, she clutched me in a fragrant hug while Red smiled benevolently upon the scene. Blake Jarvis was promised a new toy for being so brave, and he and his mom went off together to pick it out, holding hands.
Red gave me a high five. “Stellar job, as always!”
You know who I thought of then? Aunt Stella. My badass, beautiful aunt, the adventurer of the family, the one who refused to be pinned down by the proprieties dictated by Southern society, much less our small town. The one who understood me completely, while my conservative parents wondered how I could have possibly resulted from their chromosomal merger. I wished desperately I could tell Stel about what had just happened with Blake Jarvis, because she would have looked at me delightedly across her Diet Coke (she drank them in extra-large mason jars, with plenty of ice, pretty much incessantly) as if I really did have a superpower, as if finding lost people was something remotely special, something only I could do. She would have told me that when I’m at college and surrounded by people who appreciate me, I will be way better off than Chassie is. Never peak in high school, she used to say. You need somewhere else to go afterward. That’s what she did after she graduated, but she didn’t just go somewhere else, she went everywhere: traveling the world, trying out different jobs, different apartments, different relationships.
Mom was always telling her little sister to grow up and settle down, but I thought Stel was perfect just the way she was. Calling her own shots, saying the heck what other people think. She’s the one who told me I didn’t have to do everything my parents did just because they decided it was right for them. Find yourself, she said. That’s the only way.
Last summer she was on a beach in the south of France when she noticed two little kids being swept out to sea. As a teenager, she’d lifeguarded at our town water park, and she dove right in after them. She brought one back to safety before going in after the other. She got him close enough to shore that he could make it on his own, and that’s when the riptide pulled her back again.
They never recovered her body.
That’s the thing about lost. It doesn’t always mean found. The worst losses are those things we never truly get over, no matter how good we are at locating misplaced car keys. Sometimes it feels like they take over completely, leaving a hole where your heart used to be.
The grief counselor told me to hold on to the memories, that’s how I keep Stel alive forever. But there are some days I’d like to pack my memories up in a suitcase, put them on a plane, and let them fly around at thirty thousand feet until I’m ready to collect them again, which, to be honest, might be never.
My job helps, though, it really does. Last summer it was the one thing I kept doing, a place I could go when everything else seemed bleak and pointless. Red treats me like an adult, and he’s never judged me for anything, unlike Mom and Dad. And if I cry when I’m back here, which I did pretty much every day after we got the call about Stel, there’s no one around to see me. Along with getting regular paychecks, what more can you ask for in a job?
Well, there’s another thing. At her memorial service, Aunt Stella’s favorite yoga instructor called her a connector. That means someone who makes the world feel more welcoming and whole, who makes people feel better together in it. I keep thinking that if I can be more like Stel, if I can bring people and things together, maybe I won’t have lost her entirely after all.
I like to imagine that Stella survived and is living on an island somewhere, free and beautiful and drinking from her mason jar. Of course, that’s highly unlikely, but who knows, maybe somewhere, someone is finding the things that are important to me. Being in the store makes me think about possibility, about how we only know our side of the story. Maybe there’s another side to things you haven’t even thought of yet.
I drop the mic. These suitcases aren’t going to unpack themselves.