The Road to Rollergirl How I Stopped Being a Roller Wannabe and Started Being a Rollergirl

9Nov/111

Roller Review: Catherine Mabe’s “Roller Derby”

This review almost didn't happen. I mean, the subtitle of Catherine "Jayne Manslaughter" Mabe's book really says it all -- Roller Derby: The History and All-Girl Revival of the Greatest Sport on Wheels. This lovingly-written history traces roller derby from its earliest days to its current incarnation. Or at least to the time of the book's publication in 2007 -- you would be surprised to realize how much has changed since then (e.g. "A period is twenty minutes of running time. The period clock may only be stopped during an official time out.").

If Down and Derby is the "for Dummies" book of the derby world, Mabe's book is the Time-Life volume. This is the book you want to have sitting on your coffee table, or buy for that friend of yours you've been subtly trying to convert... erm... recruit.

Roller Derby by Catherine MabeOf the modern roller derby books I’ve read so far, this one provides the most approachable account of the genesis of the sport. Let’s be honest, for all but the most enthusiastic sports historians, the “transcontinental roller races through Rollerjam” part of the history of our sport is pretty boring to people who aren’t already Derby People. For a sport of such remarkable longevity, the proportion of people who watch the sport now and actually remember televised professional roller derby is surely decreasing year by year. With her concise storytelling and collection of classic photographs and vintage promotional material, Mabe makes the early years accessible and interesting.

While the book does include some of the more technical aspects of the sport—the obligatory ‘there are jammers/blockers/pivots, hips are points, stars and stripes on helmets’—the focus is really on modern derby as social phenomenon, and the psyche of the sport and the women who play it.  The book doesn’t delve too deeply into the guts of the sport, but it is a much fuller treatment than your average “by day/by night” “not your grandmother’s roller derby” fluff piece. It is a popular culture study of the tough women, the DIY ethos, the camaraderie, and the afterparties.

One of my favorite features of this book is the series of player vignettes, which isn’t just a profile of the “Who’s Who,” but includes women from all different parts of the country playing for leagues of all sizes. We see a lot of Mabe’s own home league of Rocky Mountain, but the book is democratic in its coverage, giving plenty of page space to banked track leagues and leagues that have not moved into the “compression pants” phase of derby.

Without a doubt, this is the book most likely to unexpectedly hook you in. However awesome other modern derby books out there are, it takes a certain amount of commitment to sit down and read a 200-page book about the sport, or a vague cultural knowledge of what derby means to the women who play it to read a YA novel about it. You don’t have to be a knowledge-seeker to find yourself thumbing through this glossy volume. It’s sneaky, like a reverse Playboy: you start looking at it for the pictures and the vignettes, and before you know it, you’re reading the rules of the game and wondering if there is a league near you.

The flip side of this coin is that, for Derby People, it’s possible that this book isn’t going to tell you something you don’t already know. I personally think that you can never have too many books on a subject you love, but if you’re thirsting for a deeper understanding of derby history and the nuance of different rulesets and strategy, this is probably a little 101 for your needs. Take into account, too, that there are significant questions about the sport that exist now that didn’t when the book came out in 2007. For example, WFTDA was still pretty new at the time, so the professionalism debate was not quite as pronounced as it is today, and derby names were utterly uncontroversial.

I give this one 5 of 8 wheels. Put it on your Christmas shopping list for all the friend who wonder where the hell you’ve gone and why you can’t hang out anymore. After reading it, they might just join up too.

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  1. Really?  I found this book to be pretty pedestrian in it’s coverage of the subject matter, the research and the writing.  I thought that the coverage of modern derby history was especially glossed over, and that the portion of the book dealing with old school derby failed to add anything new to the narrative that you couldn’t just find on wikipedia.  But, also, I think it just came out too soon to be able to spot the trends that would emerge in derby and make it so interesting.  It’s “too soon” quality can perhaps best be acknowledged by the fact that all the banked track pictures all come from one single game.  Could you imagine a coffee table book about derby today that has at least 1/3 of the pictures representing only ONE game?!  For my money, I think that the best sales pitch for derby out there would be a combo pack of Down & Derby and Jules Doyles’ new photo book No Mercy (which is effing GORGEOUS).  I say combo because there is no way that looking at Jules’ photos that you wouldn’t want to read more about the sport.


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