Sixteen-year-old Lacey Anne Byers' 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.
Despite the church-centered storyline, Small Town Sinners isnt 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'tt done that. Her engaging, church-centered small-town teens arent goody-goodies, and their worldview is conveyed believably and respectfully. Meanwhile, the new kid in town isn't a bad-boy rebel type; 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 that questioning should be encouraged, not stifled. 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.