Book Review: Saving Grace by Debbie Babitt

In Debbie Babitt's gripping debut, the first female sheriff of a small mountain village investigates a disappearance reminiscent of the crimes that shattered her town decades before.

Twenty-four years ago, two eleven-year-old girls disappeared in the small town of Repentance, Arkansas. Mary Grace Dobbs remembers that year very well—she was a sixth-grader herself, a classmate of the missing girls. 

I was coming up on the anniversary of my parents’ death when the girls began disappearing.

 

That summer twenty-four years ago, right before it all started, I was the one who wanted to disappear.

 

I nearly got my wish.

 

But three months later, I wasn’t the reason for the panic tearing through town. I wasn’t the one search parties went combing the woods to find, while folks prayed they wouldn’t come home with a body to bury. It wasn’t my face staring out from the missing children posters tacked to every tree.

 

That was when I really wanted to disappear, just vanish without a trace. A girl who was really and truly gone.

In some ways, Mary Grace has moved on from that awful year. Now the first female sheriff of her rural town, she’s also a single mother raising her twelve-year-old daughter Felicity while pining after her childhood crush, Parnell. 

Then Darryl Stokes returns to Repentance.

Stokes was working for Parnell’s father at the car dealership twenty-four years ago when the two girls disappeared. Plenty in town thought he was connected. Of course, he had to be connected as he was an outsider, a rootless drifter, and Black. His return stirs up the old rumors and unease. And, in Mary Grace’s case, bad memories and gnawing guilt.

That’s when she feels it. A shuddery chill down her back that has nothing to do with the weather. If she believed in signs, she’d say it feels like a ghost walking over her grave. Her skin erupts in gooseflesh, dampness pooling under her arms and behind her bare knees. She experienced something similar about a week ago. Bolting up in bed in a cold sweat, heart racing like a runaway horse, her body wracked by a nightmare she couldn’t remember. She feels it now, only stronger and more insistent.

 

Something stirring.

 

She can smell it on the rising wind as it lifts the fallen leaves and creates swirling eddies of fog that blanket the cemetery like a shroud.

 

Things starting up again.

As outwardly devout as Repentance claims to be, the truth is the small town has long been bubbling with a multitude of issues. White supremacists and bigots use religious piety as a cover for their hatred and are quick to point fingers—and guns—when another sixth-grade girl disappears.

Now Mary Grace is caught between the present and the past, struggling to find another missing girl while reconciling her own sins and family issues. Is her guilt, carried for over two decades, well-founded or misplaced? Just how much blame can she rightfully carry?

Saving Grace, Debbie Babitt’s debut, is a contemporary Southern gothic thriller that unfolds via a dual narrative. One story follows Mary Grace in 1995, detailing her emotionally fraught childhood full of loneliness and grief. The other focuses on the adult Mary Grace’s investigation into the latest disappearance, an investigation that uncovers surprising skeletons in several closets. 

Babitt’s prose is often dense and always evocative, so full of Southern color you can practically hear the twang. There’s a vivid sense of place in both storylines, supported by a rich cast of characters, which may be the novel’s greatest draw. This is a story you quickly fall into and fully inhabit as you read it, to the point where surfacing for air between chapters can leave you a little dizzy.

Babitt also has a real knack for authentic voices, particularly in the case of young Mary Grace, who goes through familiar rites of passage—from getting her first period to dealing with vindictive bullies—in believable and sympathetic ways. 

Saving Grace tackles very unsavory stuff, from child murder to animal cruelty, and doesn’t shy away from upsetting issues like homophobia and religious extremism—religion permeates the entire story lending an air of fire and brimstone to the proceedings. This is no cozy mystery complete with rose-colored glasses, so be warned before you settle in. 

Ultimately, this is a novel that proves the old adage about journeys being more important than the destination. The whodunit aspect often pushes the plot forward and Babitt delivers some very juicy twists before all is said and done. 

But Saving Grace is more about Mary Grace than the external events surrounding her. It’s at its most powerful when turned inwards, as an introspective psychological study and commentary on whether people are born bad or whether they have a choice in the matter. It’s a Southern gothic that will cling like cobwebs, and encourage you to read on long past your bedtime.

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