Book Review: A Treatment of Faith or Small Town Sinners by Melissa Walker

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I have been waiting to read this book for two years.  How can that be?  I heard Melissa Walker back in 2010 talk about the concept of basing a book around the evangelical Christian concept of Hell Houses and how that event could be a catalyst for a protagonist's personal growth.  Having just watched a documentary about Hell Houses at the time, I was reeling at just how the beliefs and passions of evangelical teens get channeled through this medium.

Small Town Sinners is a brilliantly written novel about the moment when a teenager begins to move away from their family, bonds with their peers and begins to undertake the important work of questioning what is important in their lives in order to understand what they, not their parents, believe.  Lacey Anne Byer lives as the dutiful daughter of a preacher and his wife, but at the age of 16 and on the cusp of her junior year, she is poised to find an opportunity to be in the limelight for once.  She believes that her church's upcoming Hell House is the opportunity she needs, by trying out for the most difficult part, "abortion girl."

A suicide scene from a Hell House
Hell Houses, for those of you who don't know, are many evangelical churches answer to traditional Halloween haunted houses.  While they originally took various incarnations, by the 1990s, many churches (and later the huge mega-churches or parachurches) particularly in the West began putting on complex, themed Hell Houses, which take visitors via a guide through a variety of staged vignettes depicting "sins" such as homosexuality, abortion, suicide, premarital sex, and occultism.  At the end of the tour, visitors are usually presented with a scene of hell and suffering and then taken into (or given the choice to enter) an all white serene environment in which church and youth leaders ask each individual if they are ready to accept Jesus Christ or consider learning more about fundamentalist Christianity.

Melissa Walker, who as a writer has shown a tremendous amount of diversity with the topics she has tackled (some light and fun and others deep), had pitched the concept of Hell Houses as a magazine article she wanted to write.  She interviewed dozens of various teenagers involved in this life and with various perspectives on their faith and felt that their voices and personalities resonated so much with her that she decided to write a book showing what it would be like to wrestle with faith in a modern world.

I think the reason that I was so wowed by this book was because Lacey Anne was a compelling voice.  Often quieter characters in YA literature are either painfully shy or about to undergo some huge personality change and unleash their inner extrovert, but Lacey was terrific just the way she was.  Yes, she was interested in showing what she was capable of in testing her limits with her acting for the Hell House but was essentially the same thoughtful, observant person she always was.

When Ty Davis moves into town, Lacey is drawn to him and he to her.  Ty was a FABULOUS love interest.  He belongs to the same church as Lacey (his aunt is the church librarian) but he has a mysterious past.  Ty models to Lacey that she can question the inconsistencies or hypocrisy of the people around them who all espouse the ideals of Christianity (but who often fall short of that goal) including Lacey's parents.  He's not disrespectful, nor is Lacey's having faith ever in question, but the message is more button Lacey's father takes up on the bulletin board "Love is the Answer...Now what is the question?"

Walker is a special author (and a great speaker, FYI) who has really mastered how an author can have a successful online presence.  Her Facebook page has regular posts (and not just about upcoming books) and her blog is well-written and often showcases other excellent authors.  She also contributes regularly to the Readergirlz blog, which is another great resource I have in my RSS reader which helps me keep up with the latest and greatest in books.  I'm sure most libraries have a copy of this book, but for kindle owners, keep in mind the Kindle edition is only $2.51!  Bargain!