Book Talk: *Small Town Sinners*, by Melissa Walker

Small Town Sinners
Melissa Walker (Twitter) (Facebook)
Bloomsbury USA Children’s (2011), Hardcover (ISBN 1599905272 / 9781599905273)
Fiction (YA), 288 pages
Source: ARC from publisher (pub date July 2011)
Reason for reading: Faith and Fiction Roundtable discussion

Opening lines: “‘Take the wheel,’ says Starla Joy, sticking the grape lollipop she’s been working on into her mouth. She doesn’t even wait to see if I’ve followed her instructions – she just lets go and strips down, pulling off her light cotton sweater to reveal a bright red tank top dotted with white hearts.

“I lunge across the front seat to make sure her old truck stays straight. A little dust kicks up as we skim the edge of the road.

“‘Starla Joy!’ I shout. ‘I don’t even have my license yet.”

Book description, from the publisher’s website: Lacey Anne Byer is a perennial good girl and lifelong member of the House of Enlightenment, the Evangelical church in her small town. With her driver’s license in hand and the chance to try out for a lead role in Hell House, her church’s annual haunted house of sin, Lacey’s junior year is looking promising. But when a cute new stranger comes to town, something begins to stir inside her. Ty Davis doesn’t know the sweet, shy Lacey Anne Byer everyone else does. With Ty, Lacey could reinvent herself. As her feelings for Ty make Lacey test her boundaries, events surrounding Hell House make her question her religion.

Comments: If you’ve been reading here for awhile, you may be aware that I’m quite intrigued by evangelical Christianity. It’s a worldview quite different from my own – challenging for me to understand, and all too easy to judge – but one that ten years of living in the Bible Belt gave me some exposure to and curiosity about. You may not be aware that I have deep, (probably) irrational suspicion of small towns. Some of that may also be attributed to the Bible Belt; a good chunk of it probably comes from reading a lot of “dark-heart-of-suburbia” fiction. Those elements come together in Melissa Walker’s young-adult novel Small Town Sinners, and made me approach this Faith & Fiction Roundtable selection cautiously.

Sixteen-year-old Lacey Anne Byer’s dad is an assistant pastor at the small-town, charismatic-evangelical House of Enlightenment Church. They’ve had the answers to every question Lacey’s ever had about life and the world so far, and it’s never occurred to her to have follow-up questions – or to seek answers anywhere else. On the verge of entering her junior year of high school, her biggest question concerns what role she’ll land in Hell House, the church’s twist on a Halloween haunted house in which “sinful choices” are dramatized, complete with fake blood, devils, and literally hellish consequences, in the interest of saving souls; it’s their biggest annual spiritual-outreach project. This is the first year Lacey will be old enough to audition, and she’s after the role of “Abortion Girl.” But when a not-so-new boy moves into their town, Lacey’s got something else to focus on. Not only is Ty good-looking and nice, he has questions of his own, and they make Lacey wonder if there might be different, more complex answers than the ones her church and family have been giving her.

My cautious approach to this novel turned out to be unnecessary. Despite the church-centered storyline, Small Town Sinners isn’t terribly preachy, and I appreciated that. I also appreciated that while Melissa Walker has come up with a story in which the characters could have easily been drawn in one-dimensional black and white, she hasn’t done that. Her engaging, church-centered small-town teens aren’t goody-goodies, and their worldview is conveyed believably and respectfully. Meanwhile, the new kid in town isn’t a bad-boy rebel; he’s simply a boy with a different way of thinking – and in its way, in a setting like this, that can be equally threatening, and Walker accounts for that too. One more thing I appreciated is that she gives consideration to the reality that one may question a particular set of teachings about God separately from questioning one’s personal faith in God. This is YA fiction for a mature-minded reader, which happens to be my favorite kind.

Late adolescence is a natural time for questioning the beliefs one has grown up with, and I personally believe such questioning should be encouraged, not stifled. (Heck, I’m still doing it, which is one reason I’m part of this year’s F&F Roundtable in the first place!) I’m inclined to suspect that, by allowing the teenage characters in Small Town Sinners to question and grow and begin to operate within shades of gray, Melissa Walker feels the same way.

Rating: 4/5
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