There’s an ominous sense of dread and mystery that permeates the village of Amity Falls, all masterfully rendered by Erin A. Craig in her second young adult novel, Small Favors.
On the surface, life in Amity Falls is simple. The villagers live by a clear set of rules (all conveniently listed by Craig at the start of the book and sometimes reiterated at the beginning of individual chapters). Neighbors help each other out, whether it involves bringing in crops, building barns, or cooking desserts. Everyone is friendly.
“In a place so removed from the rest of the world, we had to rely on our neighbors to know that their intentions and hearts were pure,” Craig writes through the eyes of her protagonist, 18-year-old Ellerie Downing.
When Craig introduces Ellerie, the young woman has reached a point in life — as most teens do — where she is beginning to question how she fits in. “My place in the world was nebulous, a malleable concept only given definition by the space I occupied,” Ellerie muses. “When I was in the classroom, I was a schoolgirl. At home, I was a daughter. When someone eventually courted me, I’d be a wife, a mother. But until then, what was I? Who was I?”
Even her relationship with her twin brother, Sam, starts to take an unexpected turn.
“Growing up, Sam and I had squabbled often — as twins we were often seen as one person even when our thoughts were wildly divergent — but we’d never come to physical blows before,” Ellerie tells us. “He was changing, growing angry and hard. I didn’t understand why. Was this simply part of growing up — growing separate and apart?”
At the same time, a growing sense of unease slowly envelops the orderly community. Crops turn bad. Supplies disappear. Bizarre creatures are seen in the dark. And irrational suspicions among the village’s citizens threaten to disrupt the status quo.
Craig, a former Memphian, skillfully maneuvers readers through the novel exclusively through Ellerie’s perspective, amping up the sense of dread with stark prose and Ellerie’s own fears and passions. As a result, Craig keeps the answers to what’s happening tantalizingly out of reach, or just on the fringes, compelling readers to keep forging ahead.
Things take another unsettling turn as a stranger appears out of the woods, keeping even his name a mystery. The young man — whom Ellerie names Whitaker Price — appears to be well intentioned and friendly and, what’s more, especially attractive to her. But he’s reluctant to say much about his past or where he’s from or why he seems to disappear for long periods of time.
When the Downing farm is suddenly engulfed in flames and Ellerie’s mother is severely burned, it is Price who escorts her parents to a hospital beyond the forest, leaving Ellerie to rebuild and tend to her sisters’ needs on her own.
“I didn’t want this responsibility,” Ellerie muses, “this horrible and heavy weight pressing into my chest, stabbing its sharp talons around my throat, and digging in until I feared I’d suffocate. It was all too much, and I felt too young to handle it on my own.”
Just when everything seems to be at its worst, Price reappears and, once again, seems to have what Ellerie needs — in this case, sugar to help nurture the family’s beehives through the cold winter — and in just the right quantity. All he asks for in exchange is a marker, “a substitute for what is being pledged.” A small favor, if you will.
Anything further said about the plot would spoil things. But suffice to say that the intrigue and suspense only intensify from here. Much like her breakthrough debut novel, House of Salt and Sorrows, which reimagined the Brothers Grimm’s “Twelve Dancing Princesses,” Craig draws from a familiar fairy tale and subverts it into a chilling, dark fantasy for modern-day readers of all ages.
Robert Frazier is a former Middle Tennessee newspaper reporter and editor now working as a book reviewer and aspiring screenwriter. He has served as a script reader for screenwriting competitions at both the Austin Film Festival and the Nashville Film Festival. He lives in La Vergne.
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