Walker has written a credible and tender evocation of the moment when a young person's beliefs begin to emerge and potentially diverge from the teachings of a family's religion…by stressing the importance of forgiveness and honesty, Walker proves that her heart is in the right place, and readers will sense this.
The New York Times
Both tender and provocative, this coming-of-age story takes place in a small evangelical town famous for a graphic, terrifying Hell House staged every Halloween by the House of Enlightenment. Sixteen-year-old narrator Lacey, a pastor's daughter, wins the coveted role of "Abortion Girl" after the previously cast girl gets sent away to a residence for pregnant teens. Sharing her father's belief that "You got to shake 'em to wake 'em," Lacey embraces her responsibility to show others "what the consequences are if you don't accept Jesus into your heart." Disrupting her certainty in literal biblical interpretations is gorgeous Ty Davis, returning to town after a decade-long absence, rekindling first-grade friendships and asking thoughtful questions that challenge Lacey's convictions. While the combined sincerity and extremism of the Hell House production is viscerally shocking, Walker (Lovestruck Summer) creates an astutely balanced portrait of a conservative congregation's in-your-face response to perennial issues of domestic abuse, teen pregnancy, and suicide, as well as of those who struggle to fit the prescribed Christian mold. (July)
School Library Journal
Gr 9 Up—Lacey Anne Byer can't wait to participate in Hell House, her father's church's Halloween outreach event that she helps with every year. Selected this time to act the part of a doomed and remorseful patient at an abortion clinic, the 16-year-old wants to make an impression with her role. When Ty, a former classmate, returns to town, Lacey befriends him, noting both his good looks and his friendly but mysterious demeanor. Ty is quickly absorbed into Lacey's tight circle of friends, making what was once a threesome into a quartet. Soon after, however, the group struggles with the news of Lacey's friend Starla Joy's sister's unplanned pregnancy, as well as with local bad boy Geoff Parsons, who bullies Dean, the fourth member of their group, relentlessly. As Lacey considers the plight of Starla Joy's unmarried teenage sister, Ty gently leads her to question the black-and-white system of morals associated with the church in which she was raised. Small Town Sinners is distinctly nonjudgmental, but, as it includes some circumspect questioning of the tenets of Lacey's faith, cannot be considered an example of Christian fiction. Walker depicts small-town Southern life with respectful realism, highlighting the place of the church as a religious and social center of the community. This characterization allows Lacey's internal conflict-between her father and his church's ideals and the new frame of reference that Ty provides—help to achieve a complex believability that lingers through the novel's conclusion.—Amy S. Pattee, Simmons College, Boston
Lacey Anne Byer makes being a Preacher's Kid look easy: She's happy to honor her curfew, proud of her purity ring and keen to perform her heart out in the plum role of Abortion Girl at her evangelical church's annual Hell House.
Each shocking scene in Hell House—an abortion gone tragically wrong, a fatal drunk-driving incident, a gay marriage cut short when one man dies of AIDS—aims to touch attendees' hearts, bringing them closer to God, and Lacey is absolutely on board with this mission. But when adorable Ty Davis returns to tiny West River after years away, Lacey's previously unshakeable beliefs start to wobble. Ty brings out the questioning young theologian in Lacey, encouraging her to wonder if small sins are as bad as big ones and if sins are always, well,sinful. The issue of unplanned pregnancy moves from hypothetical to real when Lacey's friend Tessa gets pregnant; Lacey chafes at Tessa's being shipped off to a home for unwed mothers while the baby's father remains at home, apparently consequence-free. Lacey's questioning of beliefs she's always held so firmly (and, OK, sneaking off to hang out, ever-so-chastely, with Ty) yields the first serious conflict she's ever had with her doting parents.
This secular story about religious people could easily devolve into camp mockery, but because Walker takes her character's crisis of faith seriously and sensitively, readers will, too. (Fiction.14 & up)