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Bernice Martin

A Backslider's Tale

Growing up Pentecostal.

Diane Wilson's Holy Roller is a memoir of a Pentecostal childhood in the tough shrimping community of Seadrift on the Gulf Coast of Texas, but it is also a true-life murder mystery and, as the subtitle says, the record of growing up to "quit loving a blue-eyed Jesus." Wilson may have left the church but she did not leave the community. The publishers tell us she is a fourth generation shrimper, mother of five, and a celebrated environmental activist whose first book, An Unreasonable Woman, was the story of her successful pursuit of Formosa Plastics, who were dumping toxic waste in the Gulf Coast shrimping grounds.

She is not only a determined and courageous woman but also an exhilarating writer who somehow must have found time to read books in that busy life of hers. Her story is dramatic and uproarious but never overwritten. Even the violence threaded through it is presented without prurience or embellishment: shooting yourself accidentally with your first gun is just what happens if you are seventeen and careless like Mom's brother Delbert; so too losing your little brother, as her grandfather did, when he fell into a beach fire because Daddy had left and Mother was too harassed to be there with the kids. "Little brother Sand Dune" stayed where he fell on that barren island when the fatherless family decamped to the mainland.

There is a lot of humor in the book, but it is never patronizing or malicious; Wilson's wit is interwoven with intimations of the dark aspects of life in such a hardscrabble community. And the dialogue is utterly convincing. Once begun, Holy Roller is as hard to put down as any whodunit, though not because there is ever any doubt about the identity of the murderer (an out-of-control game warden whose own appalling story is finally disclosed in the testimony of his sibling, Brother Dynamite, an ex-convict who becomes a born-again preacher and snake handler). You simply don't want to leave this richly re-imagined world and the resilient little girl ...

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