Apr 272011

Ready everybody?  It’s a roller derby book review!! If y’all like this, let me know what other derby books you want to hear about.  I devour books like my dog devours the stuffing in his toys, so I’m happy to read and report back on any derby-related literature (novels, non-fiction write-ups, comics, whatever) you want to hear about.  Today’s review features Pivot, the novel by Burn City Rollers‘ own 9lb Hammer*.  You can buy the book, in paperback or electronic format, right here.  (For more of 9′s work, check out her blog!)

I want to preface my review by saying that I am a woman obsessed with change.  Not the nickels and dimes kind.  The kind where you overhaul your entire life every few years.  The kind where you throw all of your stuff in a dumpster and move across the country to a new coast.  The kind where you break up with people who love you – or people who don’t, but think they do – just so that you can do something different. The kind where the people who have mistaken you for a steady, stable individual are suddenly left standing disappointed in your dust as you run the other way.  In short, I am the sort of woman who constantly changes things in the hopes that she will also change herself.

My mother, most of my boyfriends, and several well-meaning therapists have always interpreted this need for change as a sign of self-disgust.  ”You’re just unhappy with yourself,” they’ll say.  ”You need to realize that changing your circumstances won’t change you.”  And before I joined derby, I’d started to believe that maybe they were right.  Maybe I DO hate myself, I’d thought.  I mean, I don’t FEEL like I hate myself.  But if everyone keeps saying I’m running away from myself… maybe they know something I don’t.

Clementine Byers, the narrator of Pivot, faces a similar conundrum.  A juvenile diabetic, she grows up in the shadow of a chronic condition – an aspect of herself that she cannot change, no matter how hard she tries.  Because she is powerless to change her health – because her body holds sway so thoroughly over her daily activities – she begins to feel powerless over her entire life.  She wants more than anything to CHANGE.  She believes that if she could somehow change her circumstances, she could be free to become the person she wants to be.

The crux of Clementine’s struggle is crystallized early in the novel, when she prepares herself to leave home for college and thinks to herself , ”College will change me.  I will change myself in college.”

When I read that line, I circled it.  Then I underlined it.  Then I highlighted it.  Because in those two sentences (the cadence of which is repeated several times throughout the story), Clementine (and, by proxy, 9) sums up the struggle I face whenever I change something about my life.  She is standing on a very fine line – the line between active and passive, the line between the things we do to ourselves and the things that we just let happen.  She knows she wants her life to be something different, and at first she pins her hopes passively on her surroundings.  College will change me.  Something else, something that is not me, something I cannot control – it will change me.  But in the following line she corrects herself – she acknowledges that what she REALLY wants is to be the active force.  To do.  To go.  To change herself.  And in that instant she reveals the underlying force that will eventually drive her to become derby girl Xana Doom.

No, not XanaDU. Xana DOOM.

Because the difference between a derby girl and a regular girl is that derby girls reject passivity.

Throughout the novel, Clementine faces circumstances that cause her frustration, that make her feel weak and powerless: a mysterious college boy who charms her and then disappears; a group of church kids who promise to cure her diabetes through prayer; a natural-medicine salesman who asks her to hang her hopes on pills; a mother who seems stranger and more distant each time Clem visits home.  And at first glance, it might appear as though these figures are the ones who control the direction of the narrative.  But in reality, Clem’s voice is always present underneath – confused and questioning, but nonetheless head-strong and steady.  She doesn’t always have the answers, but she DOES always know what she wants.  And ultimately it’s her desire to save herself – to refuse anyone else’s definition of salvation- that propels the story.

Through this aspect of her work, 9 has managed to distill the true essence of a derby girl.  We’re constantly hearing stories about how “roller derby saved my soul.”  I’m one of the people who says it all the time.  But what Clementine/Xana’s story makes clear is that derby girls, at their heart, are girls who save themselves.  They are girls who stand strong in the face of danger and frustration and sadness and fear.  They are the ones who control their own lives.  Every derby girl who joins a league and finds her strength is really just finding the space to express what has always already been present.  She’s always been strong; she just didn’t know it before.

When I first heard of the concept of the derby novel, I was skeptical.  I love derby, after all.  But it’s so specific.  Could it really be possible to take something so complex and individual and apply it to the universal themes of a novel?  What 9 proves in her book, though, is that books about derby are books about everything – about growing up, about finding your strength and defining yourself – about what it means to be a modern woman.  The best topical novels are ones that use their subject as a doorway into the everyday.  They navigate familiar emotional terrain through a new lens.  Clementine’s struggles are highly specific – the summers spent at a camp for diabetic kids, the late-night conversations with a Canadian pill salesman, the eventual struggle to become a derby girl.  But each of those struggles serves as a metaphor for something broader.  In the same way that we talk about derby as a microcosm of the everyday world, the derby novel contains all of the emotional ups and downs of daily life, and 9′s book is an example of the form working at its best – making the individual and specific highly relatable.  So while I recommend the book for anyone who loves derby, I also recommend it as a gateway drug for any of your friends who haven’t quite caught on yet.  If you have that one buddy who just doesn’t quite understand your obsession, hand her the book!  Because while watching a bout can show someone how invigorating the sport can be, READING about it may be the best way to understand full-force derby consumption.

*Full disclosure: 9 is my inter-league derby wife, so this might not be the world’s most impartial review.  But her writing is one of the reasons I love her!  So that should be a pretty good endorsement.