Like other girls in her church community, Lacey wears a purity ring, symbolizing her decision to remain chaste until marriage.Lacey's life is characterized by always following the rules, something she's not happy about because she feels that she is missing out on life and excitement. She also feels this makes her boring and unattractive. She longs to step out of her comfort zone and try new things instead of always following the rules.
The novel opens with Lacey taking her drivers test and noticing a cute blond boy at the DMV office. A few days later, that same boy initiates their first meeting when he stops the care in the street to introduce himself. Lacey eventually recognizes him as Ty Davis, a kid she remembers from her first grade class and who left town ten years ago.
Lacey and Ty begin a friendship that sees them meet up at Ulster Hill and sit and talk about life, about their faith and what it means to them. Lacey's parents do not know that she is meeting Ty on a regular basis.
Meanwhile at the church, efforts are on to prepare for their annual Hell House, which happens just before Halloween. The Youth Leaders meet to plan the Hell House which Lacey describes as follows:
"They're kind of like haunted houses, which is why we do ours over Halloween weekend. Tour guides dressed as demons take the audience through the church, room by room, to view scenes of sin: a drunk driving crash, a suicide, domestic abuse, and an abortion."The purpose behind Hell House is to show young people the reality of sin and to draw them into committing to Christ. Lacey is fully committed to participating in Hell House and desperately wants to be Abortion Girl, a role usually only given to a senior student. This year's Hell House will include scenes on gay marriage, drunk driving, abortion, and spousal abuse. Lacey decides to audition for the part of Abortion Girl despite her parents reservations.
"In the past, I haven't gone for what I want. I've been safe and good and all those things that were expected of me...."
Against the backdrop of her faith community's preparations for Hell House, Lacey begins to question her faith, what she believes in, and how her community treats those who have made choices similar to the ones portrayed in Hell House. In an effort to resolve her conflicts, Lacey talks to both Ty who urges one approach - a nonjudgmental and more liberal view, and her father who urges another - faithfulness to Biblical teachings.
Walker uses the scenes in Hell House to explore the way the evangelical Christian community in particular, and Christianity generally, approach specific situations such as homosexuality, premarital sex and abortion and drunk driving and how it treats those who have fallen. Because these situations are common ones, it's not surprising that there are characters in the novel for whom these scenes are representative.
One such example is Starla Joy's sister, Tessa who is impregnated by her boyfriend, Jeremy. While Jeremy's life goes on, Tessa is sent away to a home for unwed mothers to have her baby. There is the suggestion that Tessa is a slut and that she is "that kind of girl" while no one considers Jeremy to be "that kind of boy". This is further emphasized when Jeremy continues on in Hell House as a demon talking about the dangers of promiscuity while he has sinned precisely in this way. Lacey sees the hypocrisy in this and it troubles her greatly.
Walker's strongest commentary though is about how often in the Christian community actions don't match up with beliefs and charity is often short-changed. A good example of this is when Tessa's pregnancy becomes known, Lacey's parents suggest that she find distance herself from Starla Joy, in effect, encouraging her to abandon her friend in her hour of need. Lacey tells her parents this and refuses to obey their directive. She knows Starla Joy needs her.
My complaint about this book is that Lacey who represents the Christian point of view is often a weak character, seemingly unable to provide answers for why she holds the beliefs she does. For example, when Lacey and Ty are discussing the abortion scene and its very gory depiction of a late term abortion, Ty states that he's "pretty sure it's quick and clean and safe ninety-nine percent of the time.....And I'm positive that it doesn't involve major blood or anything really violent. Most women walk out the same day." Lacey really has no response to Ty, instead acknowledging to herself that "I guess I hadn't ever really thought about what an actual abortion might be like." Seriously? In the United States, with a very vibrant and highly visible prolife movement, the idea that Lacey has no idea what is involved in an abortion is quite unlikely. Lacey's desire to be Abortion Girl then seems very unrealistic, because if she wanted to turn girls away from abortion, but she didn't understand what was involved in an abortion, why was she so obsessed with playing Abortion Girl? The implication here is that Christian teens (and their parents) who hold to the view that abortion and premarital sex are wrong, are misguided, ignorant and not critically thinking in their reasons for opposing such actions.
Asking teens to consider these heavy questions on abortion, premarital sex and homosexuality based on how they are presented within the context of Hell House is unfortunate, as the majority of Christians do not agree with the Hell House tactics nor with its depiction of people and the reasons they chose to do certain things. It's true there are over 3000 churches in the United States that participate in the Hell House movement which was started by Jerry Falwell. However, most mainstream Christian churches including Catholicism do not subscribe to this type of fire and brimstone Christianity. More than ever, the reasons for opposing abortion and premarital sex for example, are highly nuanced and developed, with a view towards compassion and charity. For example, few teens go away to special homes to have their babies, instead they continue their education and receive community and pastoral support.
Walker's dialogue and the information she incorporates into her novel comes from an article she did for ElleGirl in 2006 on Hell Houses. For more on Hell Houses from a true Christian perspective please read Rethinking Youth Ministry.
There's no doubt this is a provocative look at the extreme religious right that in no way represents the majority of those Christians who hold that abortion and premarital sex are wrong.
Small Town Sinners by Melissa Walker
New York: Bloomsbury 2011