The Journey with Jesus
Reviews By Dan Clendenin
The real name of Diane Wilson's church was Church of Jesus Loves You. Pentecostal to the core, it was not to be confused with half-hearted Baptists, lukewarm Methodists, and certainly not that "cult of Mary" from Rome. These were SPIRIT FILLED believers who welcomed visiting evangelists once a month, knew the power of a tent meeting revival, and, believe it or not, cast doubt on Brother Dynamite who handled snakes in his riverside church. Welcome to the bayou of Seadrift, Texas, about midway between Corpus Christi and Galveston on the Texas gulf coast.
Wilson grew up in Seadrift as a fourth generation shrimper and mother of five; most people know her as an unlikely environmental activist who battled Formosa Plastics for dumping toxic waste into their waters and founded Code Pink (a story told in her 2005 book An Unreasonable Woman; A True Story of Shrimpers, Politicos, Polluters, and the Fight for Seadrift, Texas). In this childhood memoir, told from her perspective as a nine-year-old girl who slept in the same bed with two sisters, she introduces us to her colorful family, a crazy-faith subculture, the hard life of Seadrift's shrimpers, crabbers, and oystermen, and a mysterious double homicide. Grandma Rosa Belle headed shrimp for two cents a pound, gave all her money to a "fornicating radio evangelist," and was a paragon of faith. Chief, "Daddy's Daddy," was her favorite. Her mother Goldie raised seven kids and never left the city limits until she was twenty-five. Her Daddy, Billy Bones, was a chain-smoking backslider and promise-breaker.
I couldn't put this book down and finished it in little more than a day. Wilson's command of voice and vernacular are the envy of any author. There's not one false note, not a single over-written dialogue, not a trace of condescension toward her subjects, nor any sense of exaggeration in these larger than life figures. Some critics have compared Wilson's work to Flannery O'Connor and Harper Lee. I was reminded of Rick Bragg's memoirs and the documentary film Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus by director Andrew Douglas that features Jim White. White talks his way through the loneliest and most isolated parts of Florida, Virginia, Louisiana and Kentucky, the south of abandoned school buses, wash-board sandy roads, houses on stilts in swamps, and cars held together with "Alabama chrome" (duct tape). Among these quirky and desperately poor people Douglas and White find the struggle between good and evil that is every person's story. "I was thinkin' about these desperate people and their desperate, hellfire religion," says White. "So they invented a god who's gonna whup ass, basically." The saints at Seadrift's Church of Jesus Loves You would understand that.
Turner, Matthew Paul. Churched: One Kid's Journey Toward God Despite a Holy Mess. WaterBrook: Random. Oct. 2008. c.240p. ISBN 978-1-4000-7471-6. $18.99.
Wilson, Diane. Holy Roller: Growing Up in the Church of Knock Down, Drag Out; or, How I Quit Loving a Blue-Eyed Jesus. Chelsea Green. Oct. 2008. c.224p. photogs. ISBN 978-1-933392-82-0. $24.95. AUTOBIOG
These two vivid memoirs, in very distinct voices, recollect childhood in the context—well, in the clutches—of all-encompassing religion. Wilson's fierce determination and passion characterized her first memoir, An Unreasonable Woman, about her David vs. Goliath fight against a polluting Texas chemical company. Now she delves into her childhood in a hardscrabble Pentecostal shrimping family, surrounded by fire-and-brimstone preachers, radio evangelists, tongue-speakers, snake-handlers, and her own relatives—believing women and fallen-away men. Wilson's prose is breathtaking in its dexterity and blunt poetry, as when she recounts being conscripted as a scout to accompany her grandfather and Aunt Patty, under cover of night, to break into a game warden's riverside shack in pursuit of an incriminating gun. Wilson evokes in her rural Gulf Coast setting an exotic place at the intersection of transcendence and squalor, coated in oyster dust and the conviction that God saves (the Pentecostal believers, and no one else).
In contrast to Wilson's intensity, Turner offers a gentle, amused—and slightly bemused—recollection of his own Christian fundamentalist upbringing. His story begins on the day his four-year-old, formerly Methodist self gets affixed with a clip-on necktie and whooshed off to a new, independent Baptist church and ends, more or less, the day he receives an award at his high school graduation for being "Most Christ-like" (out of a class of four). In between, the author reflects on his pastor's overly loud sermons, his own struggle with the sin of dilly-dallying, and the foibles of growing up in a family that would, for instance, celebrate Christmas by throwing a poorly-thought-through birthday party for Jesus, featuring a cake with 33 lit candles. As reflected in his subtitle, Turner, who has written several books on Christian life, came through the experience with faith intact. Churched would have benefited from more exploration of how and why, but it is a solid, poignant, and funny memoir nonetheless. Both books are recommended for public libraries, and Wilson's is essential.
—Janet Ingraham Dwyer, Worthington Libs., OH
Monday, December 1, 2008
Review by Jill Hindenach
Holy Roller is the childhood memoir of former shrimp boat captain and current activist Diane Wilson. It is a follow up to her 2005 memoir An Unreasonable Woman, which details her fight against chemical plants and a multi-billion dollar corporation (Formosa Plastics) upon learning her Texas county was the number one toxic polluter in the United States. Holy Roller invites readers into the world of shrimping and praying that made Wilson the “unreasonable” woman she is today.
As one can gather from the book’s title, the story focuses on Wilson’s upbringing in an intensely religious community, and how she ultimately quits loving the blue-eyed Jesus she’d been told to put her faith in for the first years of her life. Wilson’s story is relatable because, at some point, most adults were once gullible children, believing in everything from Santa Claus to the Tooth Fairy to whatever god their family might believe in. Wilson is a particularly gullible child; she believes everything she is told, quite literally, which is endearing to a fault.
The main plot of the story involves the murder of her uncle, Archie Don, and her grandfather Chief’s search for Don’s killer. Chief enlists Wilson’s help to complete the task, and the result is more than a girl her age can take. In the end, she experiences a sort of psychotic break, thinking the actor Anthony Perkins (best known for his role as Norman Bates in the original Psycho) is speaking to her, which doesn’t sit well with her family.
Her tipping point comes after realizing that the only thing years of believing in God gave her is guilt. In the Church of Jesus Loves You, every bad thing that happens is because a person’s faith isn’t strong enough. As Wilson’s grandma tells her, “If you’re asking Jesus for a Rolls-Royce, but you only got bicycle faith, guess what you’ll get? A bicycle!”
Though the women in Holy Roller all practice religions that preach their submission, most of them are as strong as any of the male characters. In particular, Wilson’s Aunt Silver and grandma are tough, take-charge women. Aunt Silver believes in leadership roles for women in religious communities, and her grandma (a widow, which she credits to her own “bicycle faith”) makes her living by shrimp heading, and is known as the fastest in the fish house.
Holy Roller has a great variety of examples of strong women coming out of adversity—a tried and true tale—and Wilson’s story in particular is an entertaining and satisfying read.
Shrimping and Saving
Diane Wilson's religious experience.
Emily DePrang | October 31, 2008 | Books & the Culture
The Texas Observer
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 the 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.
Read the whole review here.
Religious Memoir Rolls On Charm
By AL HUTCHISON
The Tampa Tribune
Published: October 26, 2008
Given the fact it's about religion-obsessed people in a tiny Texas coastal village where most of the men eke out a meager living as shrimpers, "Holy Roller" surely qualifies as one of the most unusual books ever to come out of a Vermont-based publishing house.
In fact, it's unusual by almost any literary standard. Even its title demands a second look. The characters are mostly Pentecostal Bible-thumpers who believe they're caught in a daily struggle between Jesus and Lucifer.
Diane Wilson has written "a childhood memoir" that seems deliberately indifferent to most of the commonly accepted rules of literature, yet its stylistic eccentricity accounts for much of its charm.
And it's unlike any memoir most of us have ever read. In fact, it might be more accurate to call it a "remembrance" - and an idiosyncratic one at that. It covers only the years when the author was 9 and 10 and is presented in the manner of a girl not yet schooled in the fine art of writing. While no doubt fitting, it also is a style potentially treacherous for the inattentive reader. It requires the reader's concentration to connect all the dots (and to keep the characters sorted out correctly).
That concentration, however, is rewarded with vivid images of very poor and extremely devout people with low here-on-Earth expectations struggling to cope with life's trials and tribulations.
The most interesting struggle is the author's quest to find a place of comfort somewhere between the suffocating religiosity of her elders and the pleasures of life that are so tempting and so within reach. Her imaginary relationship with movie actor Anthony Perkins underscores the tensions that threaten to pull her away from the church, but at what price?
Some of Wilson's passages give her book a special (and very salty) flavor that conveys a strong sense of the unusual community culture that so thoroughly dominated her childhood. Early on, for example, she describes how her father found religion: "Daddy went nuts for Jesus. He couldn't wait to get born again in the Church of Jesus Loves You. He couldn't wait to get anointed by the Holy Spirit, confess his sins, and get baptized at the bay with Grandma and her four girls and all the church watching. Overnight he became a changed man and swallowed the whole line of social sins: tobacco in all its forms, secret societies like Masons, life insurance, doctors, medicine, liquor, dance halls, theaters, movies, Coca-Cola, public swimming, professional sports, beauty parlors, jewelry, church bazaars, Christmas trees, and the entire idea of Halloween."
In "Holy Roller," there's occasional violence and a constant and casual contempt for the law. The state capital, Austin, is far away, and even the sheriff is seldom a presence. Into this legal vacuum, the game wardens become the supreme authority. Or maybe it's the rival preacher who employs an army of snakes to keep his fear-filled flock on its collective toes.
In the final analysis, "Holy Roller" is a testament to the effects of poverty and blind faith on people who know very little else.
Al Hutchison is a freelance writer living in Citrus County.
Web Exclusive Reviews
Week of 10/13/2008
In her latest, shrimper and memoirist Wilson (An Unreasonable Woman) unspools the tale of her 1950s small-town upbringing along the Gulf Coast of Texas, the daughter of third-generation shrimpers. As in her first book, Wilson writes with a stylized cadence, sans extraneous punctuation, that readers will either take to or not: “Grandma ate Fritos in a glass of buttermilk for dinner and supper and that plus giving the radio evangelist all her shrimp-heading money was driving two of her daughters batty and two not so much.” Her father, “a man’s man [who] didn’t talk unnecessarily to women,” and is always off shrimping, leaves her to be raised by her eccentric mother and grandmother (“the original Waste Not Want Not-er… nothing was so low that it didn’t get cooked into something else”), who nevertheless imbue her with strong, transcendent values. Meanwhile, a cast of characters that includes her Pentecostal Aunt Silver (“Pentecostals had faith and faith was the absence of planning”) and a snake-handling Brother Dynamite lead her through a clash between the Church of Jesus Loves You and an upstart backwoods congregation. Wilson’s distinctive voice makes for some whip-smart passages, and her southern Gothic world, a colorful and unpredictable place, is fully identifiable in its commitment to vice-tight family love and responsibility to some higher power. (Oct.)
Life has taken some interesting turns for Diane Wilson, whose metamorphosis from shrimp boat captain to environmental activist was documented in Texas Gold, a multiple-award-winning documentary based on An Unreasonable Woman, her 2005 memoir. Holy Roller: Growing Up in the Church of Knock Down, Drag Out; or, How I Quit Loving a Blue-Eyed Jesus is her irreverent take on the Pentecostal womenfolk and shrimp-fishing menfolk who raised her and their very different perspectives on life in tiny Seadrift, on the Texas Gulf Coast: By night Grandpa Chief would drag nine-year-old Diane out on clandestine boat runs while by day Aunt Silver would exorcise the demon of Anthony Perkins (yes, the actor) from her body. Wilson writes like a correspondent bemused by the strange goings-on in a foreign land, and Holy Roller is the salt-sprayed Rosetta stone that helps her readers understand.
Polymath at Large
Tuesday, October 14, 2008
Escape From the Promised Land
On page one, line one, word one, Diane Wilson's prose takes off running, and keeps running headlong for 210 pages. Better run to keep up, or she'll get done before you do, and you'll end up wondering where you are and how you got there. I don't rightly know how that works, but it does. Holy Roller: Growing Up in the Church of Knock Down, Drag Out; or, How I quite Loving a Blue-Eyed Jesus is much like a Pentecostal gathering (I wouldn't use the term "service" since a Baptist or Methodist might think I mean something familiar): full blast, in-your-face, we'll be done when the Holy Ghost gets done…yet it is also a story of growing up in a small shrimping town in coastal Texas, a rather eccentric girl amid relatives and townsfolk who range from eccentric to downright looney.
Two kinds of people naturally gravitate to independent Pentecostal churches: the ones who need a fix of high-adrenaline-charged emotion on a regular basis, and the mental masochists who just don't feel right without a regular scolding by an overblown preacher. Pentecostal Christianity is a lot like flying fighter jets. You fly a dozen missions that are boring as beans, and come back from the next one having sweated a gallon or two. One of my favorite experiences was walking in on a meeting that, so I was told later, turned into "a real gully-washer". You just weren't ready to go home until the preacher, a man with a style like this pic, had given you a bit of face time that left your eyeballs bruised.
The bulk of the story occurred just before and after Diane, AKA Silver, turned ten years old. It was like growing up in a whirlwind. I don't know just when the author fulfilled the book's title's promise, but I suppose it has to do with becoming possessed by a demon who takes the name Anthony Perkins. As far as we know, she still is.
A shrimping town revolves around the shrimpers and their catch (Image copyright Mike Keegin). The book's story also revolves around a year-long (or more) feud between Silver's grandfather Chief and an overly aggressive game warden. The author seems to have been the kid who was easiest to cajole or coerce into helping "head" the shrimp with her Dad, Billy. We get about as much of shrimping lore as we do church stories. Billy has his own run-ins with the warden, but it is Chief that brings Silver along on a couple of occasions in attempts to retrieve another son's gun that the warden seems to have stolen after murdering the man…an affair the local sheriff declines to investigate.
The case doesn't break open until a man shows up who is a snake handler. He makes a sufficiently memorable entrance by bringing a box of rattlers, moccasins and coral snakes to church with him. Kicked out by an anti-snake evangelist, he starts a "handling" church in an abandoned boat shed. It turns out he is also the game warden's brother.
I dunno, with all that going on, I'd probably decide to take a back seat to Anthony Perkins myself. The experience seems to have stood the author in good stead. In an earlier book, An Unreasonable Woman, she chronicles her nearly single-handed activism to end horrific polluting of the area by a chemical company. She is Erin Brockovich, squared. If you've been taught about a Jesus who isn't averse to "machine gun" tactics, it stands to reason…
Booklist (Friday, August 01, 2008):
When an international chemical company nearly destroyed the Gulf Coast bay from which she eked out a living as a shrimper, Wilson's pursuit of the polluters was nearly messianic in its fervor, as recorded in An Unreasonable Woman (2005). Brought up by a zealous family of Pentecostal believers, Wilson comes by her sense of moral outrage at blatant injustice naturally. Churchgoing was more than an occasional Sunday morning outing; it was a 24/7 occupation overseen by a grandmother who judged every aspect of life according to a strict and literal interpretation of the scriptures. In Wilson's provocative memoir of life in the Texas Bible Belt of the 1950s, snake-handling preachers, fitful parishioners speaking in tongues, and money-hungry radio evangelists share equal billing with corrupt game wardens, outlaw fishermen, and less-than-devout male relatives whose back-sliding ways give their womenfolk immense cause for concern. Through a vividly kaleidoscopic voice that captures the intensity of fanatical religious rapture with pitch-perfect accuracy, Wilson exuberantly animates a feverish time, a frenetic place, and its fiery people.
(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2008, American Library Association.)