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Saving Grace


Saving Grace

Debbie Babitt’s debut psychological thriller is a mix of Southern noir and Gothic horror, but is so realistic that it reads like a work of true crime. SAVING GRACE may not be dripping with Southern mysticism like a Greg Iles novel, but you clearly know where it takes place, and the backdrop speaks volumes.

The setting is a tiny Arkansas town with the fantastic name of Repentance. To say it is a God-fearing place would be a gross understatement as missing girls seem to plague its residents. Like Stephen King’s IT, the crimes against the town’s young people happen 24 years apart from each other, and there is a whole slew of characters from both timelines who will crisscross throughout the book.

Mary Grace Dobbs, who prefers to be called Grace, is coming up on the anniversary of the death of her parents. They were killed in a car accident on an icy road, and it happened to be just prior to when the first pair of girls disappeared from Repentance. Now, orphaned at 11, Grace is being raised by her aunt and uncle. However, she has secrets for which she cannot forgive herself and wishes she was the one who had gone missing. At night she finds herself pondering, “Did evil choose me? Or did I choose evil?”

"Debbie Babitt’s debut psychological thriller is a mix of Southern noir and Gothic horror, but is so realistic that it reads like a work of true crime."

Twenty-four years later, Grace is the sheriff of Repentance and has begun seeing the past not as an enemy out to destroy her, but as something finite and controllable that no longer has power over her and cannot hurt her. That is, until another pair of girls go missing.

As a child, Grace loves living in Repentance. The grass is green, the sky and lakes are crystal clear, and there is no other place on earth she would rather be. However, everything changes when a new student named Nadia Doshenko, a girl from California, is introduced to her sixth-grade class. The town is usually not kind to outsiders, and Grace’s cousin Noah claims that Nadia is the school slut. This is the same Noah who Grace has witnessed torturing and killing small animals to the point where she once saw him digging a grave for a racoon he had slaughtered.

Like her daughter, Felicity, in the present day, Grace is a star player on her school’s softball team. Her homeroom teacher, Miss Althea, recognizes that she is hurting, and she confesses to the guilt she carries about the night her parents were killed and why she blames herself for them being out on that icy road where they were struck head-on by a truck. Nadia immediately takes to Grace, and they swear to be BFFs, even going so far as to make a blood oath with each other and carving their initials into the secret tree where they hide some of their belongings.

The trouble starts when Nadia is at Grace’s uncle’s house for a visit, and his private stash of hidden money is stolen. Noah is blamed, but Grace has a sneaking suspicion that Nadia is responsible. He vows to get revenge, and Grace confronts Nadia, who denies the accusation. Their friendship is all but over by this point, and the end is further sealed when Grace catches Nadia kissing a boy behind the bleachers whom she had told Nadia she liked.

When Nadia suddenly disappears, there is not a great amount of furor in Repentance due to her outsider status. But when a local girl goes missing, the town erupts and feels the devil’s work is at hand. As far as Grace is concerned, she blames herself and wonders about Noah. There is also Darryl Stokes, a Black drifter who lives alone in a shack deep in the woods. And let’s not forget the rumor that Nadia had an illicit affair with Grace’s softball coach. It all becomes too much, and the solution --- if such is possible under the circumstances --- is a wild one.

The cycle begins again, this time under Grace’s watch as town sheriff, when 11-year-old Cherie Leigh vanishes. It just so happens that Stokes has reappeared in Repentance after 24 years. We all know that law enforcement does not believe in coincidences, so they will definitely want to pay attention to this development. When a second girl is reported missing, the town is in full uproar, and Grace is in near-panic mode as if the past is repeating itself and wondering if she is somehow the reason for this curse. That Felicity is the same age that Grace was when the initial disappearances occurred is a fact that is not lost on her. Residents begin their own manhunt for Stokes, and Grace is losing control of the entire situation --- and perhaps her own mind.

SAVING GRACE is a tense and promising debut, and I eagerly await what Debbie Babitt has in store for us next.

Reviewed by Ray Palen on March 19, 2021

Saving Grace
by Debbie Babitt