Usually tales of how the other half lives take us to upper crust neighborhoods, behind security gates, into mansions and parties of glitterati and champagne fountains. Not so with Diane Wilson’s memoir, Holy Roller: Growing up in the Church of Knock Down, Drag Out; or, How I Quit Loving a Blue-Eyed Jesus (Chelsea Green, 2008).
Anyone who’s read Wilson’s other book (An Unreasonable Woman) or heard about her arrest for protesting the Iraq war during a 2005 GOP fundraiser knows this author is a woman with a specific point of view. She says what she means and isn’t afraid to make her opinions know. What might come as a surprise with Holy is that the book’s point of view comes from a nine year-old girl.
Wilson’s pre-tween persona (“I was four years short of shooting to hell…,” she writes) is a feisty spirit undaunted by poverty, deep Southern small-town limitations or the oppressive Pentecostal beliefs within which she’s raised.
Of why the women grow their hair long we’re told, “Trimming dead ends was no good. Next thing you know, the hair was cut all the way up to their ears and the women were acting like men. It was a step-by-step progression straight to homosexuality.”
Of the rapture—the return of Christ: “Grandma was certain of the ripeness of God’s harvest and the imminent and fiery end of all history, which she viewed with as much certainty as the fishermen viewed the daily rising and setting of the sun, so she and her family dared not falter.”
It’s with these ideas that Wilson’s main character (called Silver, a family name, in the book) makes her way through life. That life on the Texas gulf coast is fraught with metaphoric mine fields. Her father is “backslipper”—he’s not interested in the church community that so consumes Silver’s mother. Instead, he spends his days harvesting shrimp and chain-smoking cigarettes when not taking on the ill-humored game warden. There’s a murder among the shrimpers and Silver sees the dead body wrapped in tarps while she’s cleaning fish at her Grandmother’s side. It’s telling that Silver’s experience as a child laborer—barefoot, no less—in a fish house is more disturbing than the dead body she witnesses.
In fact, the child-like impressions are much of the charm of Wilson’s narrative. She allows her text to run free-form and train of thought, as a child would tell a story. There is not a lot of tempering with hind sight or adult understanding, which allows for a colorful portrait of a place and time (“But kinfolks are kinfolks. And they are fed no matter what and first thing, too,” we’re told matter-of-factly) to emerge. A crazy grandfather who believes he communicates with spirits and a freed convict-turned-snakehandler are both met with innocent fascination.
On the other hand, Wilson’s text at times spins out of control and the reader is left to tread water, waiting for the tangent to run its course and the thread of the story to be regained.
Still, Wilson’s unorthodox style and loose structure allow for plenty of great lines and shining moments. “Aunt Silver said even if Doomsday came (and by her calculation it was somewhere in the near future) it wouldn’t be around suppertime tonight cause Jesus wouldn’t waste perfectly good fried oysters,” she writes. This charming glimpse into the often secretive and highly sensational Holy Roller culture makes Wilson’s book worth the read.
Diane Wilson appears at Malaprop’s on Friday, Oct. 3. The 7 p.m. event is free.
—Alli Marshall, A&E reporter