The following is an excerpt from the very nice Texas Observer review of Diane Wilson‘s Holy Roller: Growing Up in the Church of Knock Down, Drag Out; or, How I Quit Loving a Blue-Eyed Jesus:
The myth of childhood is that it’s a land of innocence, before mortality and responsibility have become comprehensible concepts, much less heavy-handed laws. But another word for innocence is ignorance, and ignorance is a vacuum that will be filled with whatever’s around, be it boogeymen and monsters or heffalumps and woozles. For Diane Wilson, childhood was populated by devils and ghosts, holy and otherwise. Holy Roller: Growing Up in the Church of Knock Down, Drag Out; Or, How I Quit Loving a Blue-Eyed Jesus describes Wilson’s Pentecostal upbringing in the tiny fishing town of Seadrift, Texas, where residents were ruled by poverty, labor, elaborate religious mores, and corrupt authorities. Despite that potentially oppressive litany, the book is a delight. Wilson’s world, at least to this reader, registers as exotic and bizarre, full of hysterical preachers and wild-eyed snake-handlers. It speeds along in a language of pure poetry, a rhythmic patois rich with the acute senses of childhood. And unlike most memoirs, Holy Roller has a murder-mystery subplot to goose the pace.
The book is even more fun if you know who Diane Wilson turned out to be. After her hardscrabble youth, she stayed in Seadrift and became a shrimp boat captain and mother of five. Then, learning that her county was the most polluted in the United States, she became a full-time environmental activist. That aspect of Wilson’s life is detailed in her first book, An Unreasonable Woman: A True Story of Shrimpers, Politicos, Polluters, and the Fight for Seadrift, Texas. As we can now see, Wilson’s activism is underscored and supported by a faith—in loving humanity and in a benevolent universe—that’s all the more inspiring for having emerged from the formative years described in Holy Roller.
Wilson’s second memoir opens with 9-year-old Diane in bed with her two sisters, squished up against the window, scratching a message into the paint of the sill. The message is, “I will see Jesus in three months.” Then she wonders, “How did I know that message dropped out of heaven and didn’t come up from hell?” So she asks her Grandma.
“She said it was a sin to dream true dreams,” Wilson writes. “That was witchcraft. Unless, of course, Jesus sent them or sent angels to send them, and that was the gift of prophesy. So who did it? The devil or Jesus?”
Wilson gets this kind of riddling shrift in response to the simplest questions, reflecting the weight her family grants to thoughts, dreams, feelings, and gibberish. In Wilson’s youth, material objects and mental stimuli are so scarce that even the most passing of psychic ephemera warrant examination and, in most cases, judgment. Grandma asserts that a person inspired by the devil won’t be able to say “Lord Jesus” three times. Wilson says “Lord Jesus” three times.
“Okay, child,” Grandma allows. “You’re okay for the minute.”
Wilson spends most of her childhood either at church or in the company of her many caretakers, of whom Grandma is one. There’s also her mother, described as a “serious serious Christian woman,” but one for whom work takes precedence over worship: “She could have two lines of wash strung out before the pastor’s wife said Deuteronomy or Ecclesiastes.”
Wilson’s father, a shrimp boat captain, is considered “backslidden,” a term for those once saved by God but since lost to bad behavior—in this case, because he smokes and doesn’t attend church. Wilson is also occasionally sent to stay with her father’s father, a half-Native American former fisherman dubbed Chief. Chief is unreligious, but believes he can converse with dead spirits, both awake and in dreams.
Shuttled from place to place, young Wilson learns to keep quiet and follow orders. This works fairly well until Wilson’s uncle, Archie Don, goes missing just as another shrimper on Archie’s boat is mysteriously shot dead at sea. Chief enlists young Diane to help him track down what turns out to be Archie Don’s corpse—and then his killer—nearly getting her killed in the process.
If Wilson had wanted a more plot-heavy version of Holy Roller, she could have started the book with the dynamite sentences that kick off Chapter 5: “Murder in a fishing town is like the day before a hurricane hits. Everybody knows it’s gonna be a terrible tragedy but they can’t help feeling excited.” From here, the book picks up its pace considerably, but if Wilson had begun here, the reader would have missed 50 pages of context.