If your whole life has centered on your faith and your religious convictions, is it possible for one person to change your mind about those beliefs? That’s the question Melissa Walker tackles in her thoughtful, well-paced, and exceptionally even-handed new title, Small Town Sinners.
Lacey Anne has lived her whole life in her small town, and one of the biggest components of her existence is her religion. She’s a good girl who goes to church, believes and follows in the word of God, and has two of the most supportive friends she can imagine — Dean and Starla Jo — who also subscribe to deep religious beliefs. And now, what Lacey’s been dreaming about for a while now might be just within her grasp: playing the abortion girl in their church’s Hell House.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Hell House, it’s similar in set up to a Halloween haunted house, except that instead of being creepy features in different areas of the house, different Biblical sins are acted out in a means to open the eyes of attendees toward the word of God. For Lacey, being the character who portrays the role of a girl getting an abortion, one of the most emotionally-wrenching scenes for both the actor and the audience, meant a lot.
She doesn’t get the role. At least, not immediately. When secrets begin unraveling in the small town, and sinners are sent to handle their problems in private, out of the public’s eye, Lacey has the opportunity to take the role she’s always dreamed of. The thing is, when Ty arrives in town, he’ll challenge her every belief and ask her to reconsider her ideas of right and wrong, good and bad, and faith and truth. She’ll even reconsider whether she belongs in this powerful role or not.
Walker’s book is nothing like her prior titles, and I am so excited to see such a change in the type of story she tells here. While I enjoyed both her Violet series and Lovestruck Summer, what she does in Small Town Sinners is something powerful: she manages to tell a moving, honest story without passing an ounce of judgment. It’s a fine line to toe, especially when a story contains religion as a core element. Fortunately, Lacey as a character is fully fleshed — she’s not just a religious girl. She has passions and interests, and her personality is defined far beyond her beliefs. And Ty, who represents the opposite beliefs as Lacey, is actually not that much different from her. He attends church service, too, and he hasn’t entirely shut religion out of his life. Instead, he’s experienced things in his life that caused him to think about what he believes.
All of the characters in this story have strong heads on their shoulders, and the interactions among them are believable. The relationship that emerges between Lacey and Ty is paced well, and I love dialogs in which they engage. Ty challenges Lacey without bullying her, and Lacey returns those challenges with equal grace. In one instance, he asks Lacey to consider her best friend Dean and the reasons he may be bullied at school — when he suggests that Dean may be gay, at first Lacey denies passionately (because how could someone who is gay also be devout) but in reflecting, she comes around to realize that her best friend is made up of much more than his belief in God. The ah ha moment is not immediate, but when it comes, it really moves Lacey to think. And that’s ultimately the point: this is a book about thinking.
What I loved about these characters and this story so much was that it left me with more questions than answers. I felt at peace with how the story progresses, despite how uncomfortable I felt at times with both the assertions Lacey made with complete conviction and the way the adults in particular treated their children and their children’s beliefs. So many will see themselves in this position, either right now as teens or as adults thinking back to what it was like to be a teen.
More importantly, there’s not a right or wrong answer in this book. The restraint in writing echoes the story itself. Walker embraces the muckiness of religion and the gray areas where no answers exist. She doesn’t pick a side and devalue the other, which would have been incredibly easy to do, particularly with the use of the Hell House. Instead, she chooses to offer both sides and let the readers consider ideas from both perspectives. She asks us to use our own intellect and experiences to draw conclusions while along the way begging us to immerse ourselves in both sides of the story. She asks us to think. How can we decide what’s right and wrong and be passionate about that belief without being fair and open minded to other possibilities? The truth is we don’t need to throw out everything we believe in in order to believe in something else.
My biggest challenge with the book was that it is slower paced and the book’s strength really lies in its second half. Some of the dialog and set up felt a little clunky at the beginning, but once the book hits its stride — I’d say by page 75 or 100 — these smooth out significantly. Although it bothered me as a reader, I know it’s necessary. We have to be put into this world, and for many readers, it’s a wholly unfamiliar world of religious devotion. The other reason this is challenging is that these characters are well fleshed; stock characters who serve little more than as puppets to one belief or another would have been easier to write though ultimately unfulfilling.
Although this is a story that focuses on religion, it is not a story about religion — the ideas here are much more universal and powerful. Pass this book off to fans of Dana Reinhardt, particularly to those who loved The Things a Brother Knows. This book reminded me a lot, too, of Donna Freitas’s This Gorgeous Game, which also deals in slight with religion. Without doubt, Small Town Sinners will be a title you want to discuss, and it’s one I think teens will connect with and pull a lot of meaningful ideas from. Beware, though: even though it’s a clean read, big issues such as abortion, alcoholism, and homosexuality are discussed throughout. They need to be.
Review copy received at ALA Midwinter. Small Town Sinners will be available July 19.