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Small Town Sinners

Melissa Walker

Lacey Anne Byer, the heroine of Melissa Walker’s “Small Town Sinners,” is a born good girl: the 16-year-old daughter of the children’s pastor at the House of Enlightenment, an evangelical church in a working- and middle-­class enclave in the South — something like Dillon, Tex., in “Friday Night Lights.” Lacey even has a Tyra-like spitfire, a girl named Starla Joy, and a lovable Landry-like geek, Dean, for best friends.

Lacey is good girl enough to wear a True Love Waits ring, but wise enough (or perhaps just inexperienced enough) to see its pointlessness. “I don’t need a ring to remind me to stay pure — I haven’t even kissed a guy, let alone gotten close to anything beyond that,” she says.

But not for long. Perhaps inevitably for a young adult novel, “Small Town Sinners” follows sweet and innocent Lacey as her faith is tested and her ideas of purity are challenged (and, of course, as she finally gets kissed).

The action, both real and spiritual, centers on Hell Houses, the haunted houses run by evangelical Christian churches and parachurch organizations typically during the weeks leading up to Halloween. Hell Houses are meant to scare visitors into repentance with melodramatic, graphic depictions of sin. Lacey aspires to be “Abortion Girl” in the House of Enlightenment’s version, which shows the consequences of a grisly abortion and the costs of gay marriage.

This sets her apart from Ty, the object of her affections and a boy who inconveniently questions what they’ve both been taught by their church and families. “You at least have to admit that the morality of gay marriage is open to interpretation,” he says at one point, asking Lacey to enlarge her conception of sin. “Unlike, say, the morality of child abuse. Can you imagine some states legalizing that?”

But it’s not just teenage romance and heated conversations with her new boyfriend that put Lacey’s faith to the test. As her friend Dean, more sci-fi nerd than football hero, is bullied by his classmates, and Starla Joy’s older sister, Tessa, becomes unexpectedly pregnant despite pledging that True Love Waits, Lacey finds herself increasingly at odds with her parents, especially her father, until then the unquestioned head of the family.

When Lacey’s father fears that she has made the wrong kinds of friends in Ty and Starla Joy, she questions whether her father, who blames teenage pregnancy squarely on girls while absolving boys, is as warm and forgiving as she believed him to be. “I can’t believe my father — my rational, patient, kind, devout father — is saying this,” Lacey fumes in the wake of one particularly unpleasant impasse. “And I can’t believe it’s true. I won’t believe it.”

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. Lacey’s blind faith may not be entirely understandable to those who have never believed as she does. But for teenagers raised in more evangelical homes, as I was, the character’s spiritual life will ring absolutely true.

While the religious components of Walker’s novel are scrupulously rendered, the romantic story isn’t entirely believable. Walker, who has been an editor at ElleGirl and Seventeen magazines, has previously written Y.A. romance-centric novels, but Ty feels more like an import from the Department of Wish Fulfillment than a real character in the scope of this story. This makes “Small Town Sinners” read somewhat more like a standard teenage romance than the quietly astute story about religious growing pains it otherwise is. After all, when a blue-eyed, blond-haired boy with the magical ability to apprehend a girl’s latent outer and inner beauty asks her in all sincerity to stop quoting Scripture and use her own voice instead, it makes having potentially heretical thoughts about God a whole lot easier. Most girls in Lacey’s position are probably not so lucky.

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But for the most part, by stressing the importance of forgiveness and honesty, Walker proves that her heart is in the right place, and readers will sense this. Near the end, Lacey contemplates a verse from the prophet Isaiah: “Come now and let us reason together.” It’s a good summation of what Walker asks of her characters and, by extension, of her readers.

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