The Plot: Lacey Anne Byer is a good girl from a good family. She’s sixteen, looking forward to getting her drivers license, spending more time with her best friends Starla Joy and Dean, and getting (hopefully!) a lead role in her church’s Hell House. Enter Ty Davis, the cute new boy in town with a possible past. Ty asks questions about Hell House and church and sins and sinners and Lacey gives the comfortable, easy answers she’s been raised on. Ty doesn’t accept those pat answers. Lacey grapples with examining her life and beliefs instead of believing simply because that’s how she’s been raised and simply because everyone else does.
The Good: Hell House! Who knew? Hell House is not a haunted house in the traditional sense. Hell House is an outreach/fundraiser by Lacey’s evangelical church to bring teens and young adults to Jesus by illustrating with live-action scenarios the terrible consequences to sin on Earth and the spiritual consequences of eternal damnation. One scene, for example, is about the dangers of drinking and driving. Of course, there is an accident and someone dies. People move in groups from room to room to watch teens act out the sins of “Gay Marriage” to “Suicide.” The different tableaux are all fairly black and white and extreme in the consequences. (By the way, as you ask yourself “is that real,” here is a link to a magazine article by the author about real-life Hell Houses.)
Ty dares to ask why; why Hell House, why the extreme consequences, are the scenes even accurate. One of the reasons I liked Ty is that he isn’t radical; he isn’t stirring the pot to stir the pot. He is searching for answers, asking legitimate questions, listening with respect to the answers even when the answers don’t satisfy. Since he is the nephew of the church librarian, when Lacey Anne, Starla Joy or Dean use Bible verses to support their positions he can easily counter or debate with his own Bible knowledge. (By the way, based on the description of the aunt’s house, best paid church librarian ever!)
It’s not just Ty that causes Lacey to begin questioning the answers she’s been raised with. A local girl becomes pregnant and sent to a church home for unwed mothers while her boyfriend suffers no consequences; he even retains his role in the Hell House production. If it’s hate the sin and not the sinner, if the boy is to be treated with compassion, why do Lacey’s parents tell her to not be as close to the pregnant girl and her family?
Small Town Sinners treats the subject matter with respect. Lacey and her friends are all good kids; Lacey’s family is loving and warm. She’s asking these questions because the two dimensional portrayals of Hell House have become real and the and the old answers don’t hold up. This is a good girl’s rebellion; no sex, no drugs. Rather, the heart of the rebellion is should Lacey continue to believe just because she’s been raised to believe? Is “I was raised this way” a legitimate way to lead the rest of one’s life? There’s a lot of adults who never ask themselves this question, including Lacey’s parents.