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A Chair, A Fireplace & a Tea Cozy
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Review: Small Town Sinners

Small Town Sinners by Melissa Walker. Bloomsbury. 2011. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

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.

About Elizabeth Burns

Looking for a place to talk about young adult books? Pull up a chair, have a cup of tea, and let's chat. I am a New Jersey librarian. My opinions do not reflect those of my employer, SLJ, YALSA, or anyone else. On Twitter I'm @LizB; my email is


  1. Yes, I hadn’t heard of “hell houses” before reading this earlier in the year, then lo and behold around Halloween I saw a flyer up at my gym about something similar in my local area (it wasn’t called a Hell House but the idea was basically the same). But I suppose nothing should surprise me anymore.

    I really liked that this novel brought about questions of religion while still treating it with some respect, as sometimes this sort of thing can come across as an unbalanced attack about how “crazy” it all is. I did have some issues with Ty and the romantic component, which felt too much the stuff of cliche literary teenage (not quite believable) romance, but overall the religious exploration element is strong enough for this to be worth reading.

  2. My husband still rants about how angry and betrayed he felt as a teenager when some “cute girls” invited him to a haunted house around Halloween and he happily attended, only to find out that the horrors of the house involved some very graphic anti-abortion propaganda which he was not prepared for. It definitely backfired in his case. Even twenty years later if you mention the name of the church in his presence you can see his blood pressure rising.

  3. I have heard of the Hell House concept before – I actually think it was part of a Law & Order SVU episode a few years ago. But what an interesting topic for a YA novel. I so appreciate that more and more authors (Emily Wing Smith in Back When You Were Easier to Love, Amy Fellner Dominy in OyMG, Sara Zarr in Once Was Lost) are writing such thoughtful stories about religious teens that take religion seriously and raise questions without mocking faith. I think it’s really important for people to question the beliefs they were raised with, not just because they might want to reject those beliefs, but also because they should know why they believe what they believe, even if they decide they do agree with what they were taught. I had seen the cover of this book before, but thanks so much for highlighting what it’s about – now I can’t wait to read it!

  4. Ooh, have wanted to read this one since I heard about it. I’d not heard them called Hell Houses before, but had heard of some evangelical groups doing plays like this — I love that this is a novel of a teen thinking when she’s been sort of handed answers wholesale. I could have used something thoughtful and spotlighting-dark-corners-of-assumption like this growing up.

  5. This sounds like a really thought provoking read. What piqued my interest most is your comment on rebellion and how this book demonstrates that but in a “good” way. A more heady way as opposed to the usual sex, drugs and rock and roll.

  6. David, one thing I thought was interesting about using Ty as the romantic lead is it allowed him to be both “other” (new boy) and “same” (returning hometown boy). With a group that values, it seems, people being “same”, it allowed Lacey to both conform with societal expectations (he is one of us, his aunt is at our church, etc.) but also to “safely” rebel (because he has been away for a few years so isn’t quite “one of us” anymore).

    Alys, I can also see it backfiring when a teen experiences x (say, drinking) and realizes its not always the awful consequences a Hell House paints. They may then not believe any of what they’ve been told; resulting in either leaving that particular religion, or believing all the consequences are too far fetched to happen so “let’s drink up!”

    Katie, personally, I much more respect the religious person who believes because it is their choice than ones whose response is simply “I was raised this way.” Raised this way and choosing it? YES. Simply “raised this way,” — no (but to be clear I feel that way anytime that response is used to explain or justify one’s actions, beliefs, etc. Seriously, I could have a whole blog post on that phrase alone).

    tanita, it’s a really fascinating and thoughtful book.

    Michelle, and I think most teens, when/if they rebel, do it in these quiet ways; but it can be just as emotionally and intellectually of an earthquake for them and their family. I also think some rebellion is done by, say, reading about those who go to more extremes — that the books with the sex, drugs, and rock and roll is a good way to rebel by proxy without the consequences.

  7. While I do think this is an important book, I don’t think I’ll be able to bring myself to read it. The fact that the MC supports any kind of hate speech or bigotry at any point in the novel would make her unlikeable to me, even if she eventually rethinks the issue and comes to a different conclusion. I guess I just don’t want to see bullying glorified in any way or form.