Review: Small Town Sinners by Melissa Walker

Review: Small Town Sinners by Melissa Walker

Small Town Sinners by Melissa Walker

Small Town Sinners by Melissa Walker

I have recently been reading through a number of young adult novels recommended to me by Sarah dealing with challenging, contemporary issues.

Among these have been Sara Zarr’s incredible Story of a Girl, Siobhan Vivian’s brilliant The List and Small Town Sinners, Melissa Walker’s difficult, yet sensitive 2011 release about a small town evangelical community.

Each of these has been quite moving in very different ways, and each has been equally memorable, addressing issues and making me think without being “problem novels.” I love seeing this level of innovation of depth from today’s YA writers. 

I grew up in a small town, taught in a small town and currently live in one. There are many wonderful aspects of this experience and just as many not-so-great ones. Small towns are sometimes tempting to stereotype but also defy classification. Melissa Walker skillfully captures the complexity of a small town, walking a line in which she peels back the layers of small town life and the influence of strong Evangelical fervor.

Small Town Sinners is told from the point-of-view of Lacey Anne Byer, the daughter of the children’s pastor for the House of Enlightenment, her town’s evangelical church, who says,

I’m just trying to figure out what truth really is for me.

Not a bad idea for a quest but an elusive one—this can be like trying to hold onto a greased, twisting tiger. 

During the weeks leading up to Halloween, Lacey’s father and the congregation prepare for Hell Week. Hell Week is something like a haunted house with sin as the main attraction. [Editor’s note: read more about this phenomenon here and check out this very intriguing documentary on the subject.] Teens and adults create a series of scenes designed to literally scare the hell out of visitors and make them understand how they could come to trod upon and travel the long and dangerous road to hell. 

Domestic abuse, homosexuality, premarital sex and abortion pave the road to hell in the House of Enlightenment’s Hell House scenarios.

If selected for a role in one of these scenes, it means long hours of rehearsal while garnering much acclaim and admiration from the congregation. The most coveted role is that of Abortion Girl, which traditionally goes to a senior girl. Never one to let details such as tradition get in the way, high school junior Lacey Anne goes for the top role. She doesn’t quite make it, though, and winds up as the understudy, learning the lines and rehearsing for the most difficult and most desirable scene in the Hell House Halloween extravaganza. 

Twisting turns and unexpected curves make the road to Hell one that is not so simple and absolute as the Evangelicals of House of Enlightenment would like to believe. When Lacey lands the starring role as Abortion Girl due to an ironic twist of fate, what once were unassailable answers no longer hold the same staunch truths they once did for Lacey.

At this same time, Lacey Anne also re-connects with a childhood friend, the handsome, intelligent and deeply philosophical Ty Davis, who returns to town with an aura of mystery and leads her to question if life is really as black and white as she’s been taught. When she found herself unable to reconcile reality with what she was taught, Ty says to Lacey in a soft voice,

They’re not bad people – they just already have their own answers and they don’t have time for questions.

This type of questioning inspires Lacey Anne to question if there is space for nuance in her belief system. 

Lacey also turns to her father for comfort as she wrestles with deeply held beliefs shaken by a friend’s pregnancy. She wonders why the girl whose pregnancy makes her the sinner is treated harshly while the boy who is the father glides along with no repercussions. 

Lacey, when a girl is pregnant it’s impossible to treat her equally to a boy who is not…Besides, a boy has desires that girls don’t understand – it’s more her responsibility to keep this from happening.

Walker explores the complexity of religion wrapped into a package with the capacity to destroy lives. Working to reconcile reality with her father’s religion, Lacey turns to Mathew 7:12,

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you.

Small towns or not, when philosophical or religious belief results in blind adherence with no space or place for individual growth or error, the outcome will not be loving. With sensitivity and thoughtful exploration into contemporary issues of morality, Lacey comes to a place where she believes,

Love is the answer. Now what was the question?

The House of Enlightenment in Small Town Sinners took Hell House to a level that Dante didn’t include in The Inferno.

The Abortion Girl writhed in pain with blood-ketchup-gore drenching her sheets and a carefully sculpted hamburger-baby whisked away amid the garish glow of red as screams of sorrow sizzled forth. This disturbing scene made me cringe thinking of the power of using fear to proselytize. Sarah warned me that while she recommends Small Town Sinners all the time, she found it deeply disturbing to read, and I imagine that these scenes are why—Hell is brutally imagined at the House of Enlightenment and it’s a harsh, rigid worldview that’s illustrated. 

With that said, Small Town Sinners gives dimension to characters that could have been simplistic and drab. These “sinners” are complex people, neither flat nor rigid. Their faith gives them strength, not blinders. Melissa Walker’s small town could be the place where you live or where I live. There’s goodness and kindness. There’s also harsh judgement. Regardless, Lacey Anne Byer explores what her faith means to her, what truth really is for her on her own terms. 

Small Town Sinners is definitely a must read for contemporary YA fans and readers who are looking for a sensitive, complex read about modern religion.

{Buy it at Amazon | BN | Book Depository}

{Add it on Goodreads}

FNL Character Rating: Probably not really accurate, but I can’t help but point to season two Lyla Garrity

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