Diane Wilson, Holy Roller; Growing Up in the Church of Knock Down Drag Out; Or, How I Quit Loving a Blue-Eyed Jesus (White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2008), 210pp.
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.