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americanprophet

Ellen Harmon White: American Prophet. Edited by Terrie Dopp Aamodt , Gary Land, and Ronald L. Numbers. Buy here

I just did something I would never have imagined myself doing: I just finished reading a book about a woman I spent a good part of my life disliking intensely: Ellen White. Before I go on, let me give you the link information. The book is Ellen Harmon White: American Prophet, and it’s edited by Terrie Dopp Aamodt, Gary Land, and Ronald L. Numbers. Actually, Dr. Aamodt is the reason I read the book in the first place. I had the privilege of sitting in her American literature classes while I was in college, and working for her in the Writing Center at Walla Walla College (now University). In those years I came to respect her scholarship a great deal. Her name on the cover, and my respect for her academic integrity, prompted me to do something I would never have done otherwise: I bought a book about Ellen White.

For those of you familiar with Seventh-day Adventism Mrs. White needs no further introduction. For others a brief explanation is in order. In the early to mid-1800’s America experienced a surge of religious fervor. During that period a number of spiritual movements gave rise to new, uniquely American religions: Christian Scientism, Adventism, and Mormonism all arose out of that spiritual awakening. Ellen White, arguably the most powerful force in the formation of Seventh-day Adventism, came from a Methodist background by way of Millerism, a splinter Methodist movement that held that Bible prophecy predicted Jesus’ return around 1844. As the time grew nearer the Millerites got a great deal more specific than that. Eventually they pinned the date down to October 22, 1844. Obviously, something went grievously wrong, and instead of departing in glory the Millerites were left with what came to be known as the Great Disappointment–surely an understatement, if ever there was one. (By the way, several of these links will take you to Wikipedia; I’m trying to stay away from apologists or critics here. American Prophet covers the subject in far more detail, and it’s fully sourced and endnoted, if you’d like to explore further. Or if you’d like to read a pretty sacrilegious account with no citations at all you can go here.)

In the wake of the Great Disappointment the Millerites began searching for some explanation. Eventually disappointed Millerite Hiram Edson got a vision in which a heavenly being told him, “The Sanctuary is in heaven.” Ellen White confirmed this. The nice thing about this interpretation was that it meant all that time doing calculations and preaching about the importance of October 22, 1844 hadn’t been wasted. Indeed, for a time the Advent believers preached that only those who had accepted their message by October 22 would be saved–that on that day Jesus walked from one room in the heavenly temple into another room, and closed the door behind him. The work remaining, they believed, was to keep each other strong in the faith, not win new converts. As time passed and there was no Jesus the “closed door” doctrine was abandoned (more about this later).

It was during this period–just before 1844 and then shortly after–that Ellen White rose to prominence based on her visions, which spanned topics as diverse as ancient history, scriptural interpretation, doctrine, land purchases, diet, education, health, how the world would end, and masturbation. The woman wrote. A lot. She wrote books (more about that also later). More to the point, she wrote “testimonies,” letters directed to churches, organizations, and private church members, recounting what she said God had shown her in vision (more about this later, too). The testimonies often dealt with matters that the recipients would have preferred remain private–something that in fact many people cited as proof of their holy origins (I would think first of gossip, but that’s just me). Enough of her “testimonies” were “right on the money” to convince the fledgling Adventist church that her visions were “of God,” (and more of this later, too.) The letters were gathered, edited, and published as a collection of books which were widely read in Adventist homes, and even more frequently quoted by the devout in my own childhood–often inaccurately and/or out of context–to support personal opinions. Not to put too fine a point on it here, I came to regard Ellen White as a bully, and her writings as a club. I was not alone.

Growing up in the Adventist church, I had heard about Ellen White’s more educated detractors, generally as examples of “the devil working hard in these last days.” I never heard any official church response that went beyond “of course she was a prophet, so of course her visions came to her from God, just like she said.” When I left the Adventist church I left the controversy behind me; I was just so darned grateful to not have Ellen White weighing in on my every action that did my best to forget. And then, because the Internet is a remarkable and sometimes wonderful place, I stumbled across the writings of some Ellen White’s detractors. What I read didn’t sound so much like “the devil working hard” as it did like legitimate concerns about scholarship, ethics, and personal and professional integrity. But then again, these were her “detractors,” right? I read. I said, “Hm.” But hey, I wasn’t an Adventist anymore; the controversy no longer had any real immediacy for me. I had already decided that the Ellen White I knew best wasn’t someone I cared to continue knowing. Suffice it to say, I didn’t buy this book out of any warm and fuzzy feelings for Ellen White or her books; I bought it because Dr Aamodt contributed considerable time and effort to it, and if anybody could put Ellen White into some sort of realistic perspective it would be she.

I found out about the book because I happened to read an interview in Spectrum’s blog, and then the comments, which reminded me of the three bears: Some found the book too hard; some found it too soft; others found it just right. So when I started reading I didn’t know what to expect. It didn’t take long for me to figure out one of the sources of controversy: the book is the combined work of a number of scholars and, while all document and source their work extensively, each has a unique perspective. Some of the writers seem to support White as a prophet; others focus on other aspects of her life: her literary work, her speeches, her health reform, her educational activism, and her promotion of the temperance movement, and simultaneous rejection of women’s suffrage. Yet others deal with the controversies around her use of undocumented sources in producing materials she came in visions from God.

I found myself fascinated by the complexity of a woman I had seen from one point of view–my own. As several of the scholars acknowledge, studying Mrs. White is  studying paradox. Any book that attempts to deal with Mrs. White as a person, a prophet and visionary and woman rooted in and shaped by her times is going to be something of a Rorschach test.

Which is sad, because the scholarship that has gone into this book is impressive, and the very thing that a number of Spectrum’s responders found most annoying–that the authors didn’t take a hard enough line on the question of Mrs. White’s divine inspiration–is the thing I found most worthy of respect–ultimately, I finished the book precisely where I wanted to be–far more informed about a subject about which I should have known much, and really knew very little, and able to form my own opinions.

And what opinions did I form? None, really–but I’m asking better questions. Here are some of them:

1. Where did Mrs. White’s ideas come from? Nearly from the beginning critics have noted that Mrs. White’s “visions” seemed derivative. Certainly her health reform message owes much to other reformers of her day. The problem reaches epic proportions in her later books, particularly the “Conflict of the Ages” series, which scholars–including scholars from the White Estate–have demonstrated is largely plagiarized from other writers.

Attempts to defend the books have tended to fall back on the “people didn’t look at plagiarism then like they look at plagiarism now” argument, but that argument fails when one realizes that the charges were brought while Ellen White was still fully capable of explaining her source use–but she chose not to respond. Later editions of one of the books most heavily criticized was revised to include some source documentation, and Mrs. White included a note indicating she had used other sources as well, but since God, and not the writer she was citing, was the authority, she had seen no reason to credit the previous scholar’s work, ideas, or words.

I find this enormously troubling. Because Adventism was so heavily shaped by Ellen White’s writings, the question of where she derived those ideas is central to her authenticity. Her ideas and the books that many Adventists regard as next thing to canonical were clearly heavily shaped by other writers–even the portions that she claimed to have seen in vision. This poses an important question about how inspired her works may or may not be. If she had ever claimed that God inspired her to copy others’ work, there might be a basis for claiming an alternative, though suspect, form of inspiration. But she didn’t. She claimed the messages and images came to her in visions, and that she had deliberately not read others’ work precisely so she could not be said to have been influenced by anyone other than God himself. The scholarship shows that unless her visions featured God reading her others’ books slowly enough for her to get everything down that simply isn’t the case. If I were still an Adventist, the question I would be asking is, “So what do we do with this?”

2. How heavily were Mrs. White’s visions and testimonies influenced by self-interest? A number of her “testimonies” had to do with people not giving enough to support “God’s work”–the spreading of the Advent message. Other testimonies decried the money donated going to people she felt were unworthy. It all sounds very high-minded until one realizes that in writing those testimonies she was basically using her position as God’s messenger to wring funds out of people who might very well be less well-off than she was. The same thing applies to other visions, which seem to dovetail rather nicely with the White’s business aspirations. Were those testimonies from God, or were they prompted by something more personal?

While it would be going too far to say that she never sacrificed for her cause, it is also true that she lived much of her life in comfortably affluent circumstances: She had an estate in Australia, another in California, and a summer home in Colorado. She earned enough from the sale of her books–which God conveniently instructed her to tell people to buy by the gross to spread the word–to not only keep herself comfortably but to be able to donate generously to causes. She could afford servants–and advocated that women do as she did: hire servants to care for their homes and children so they could go on the road for God. She could afford to take “water cures.” Sacrifices there might have been, but there were also financial rewards–many of them enhanced by the very best celebrity endorser of them all–God Himself, through the voice of his humble servant Ellen White.

Likewise her denigration of others’ claims of prophetic gifts. American Prophet paints a picture of Adventism’s early roots in the “shouting Methodist” tradition–a tradition that included a number of people prophesying, speaking in tongues, falling into trance states, and so forth. Ellen Harmon was by no means the only person claiming visions–and being regarded as divinely inspired. More that one writer notes that her husband, James White, played a key role in her rise to prominence–and that during a time period when he refused to publish her visions and testimonies in the fledgling Adventist periodical he edited her public career languished, and her visions virtually ceased. When he was replaced as editor by someone who began publishing her words again the visions came back. James learned his lesson, and again promoted her as God’s special messenger. In the beginning a number of people experienced visions and contributed to the formation of Adventism. Before many years passed, though, all the prophetic voices other than Ellen White’s had either ceased–or been condemned as “false prophets” by God, via Ellen White.

When she defamed others who claimed to have Word direct from the Mercy Seat, was she doing God’s will, or shoring up her position as Adventism’s sole prophet? I don’t know, but I am troubled by her willingness to declare others whose vision of godliness didn’t dovetail with hers false prophets, even as she herself was demanding that her visions and utterances about everything under the sun be accepted as God’s words. We are left with the Rorschach test–either she was exactly what she said she was or she was a consummate career woman who parlayed a tenuous position into enormous success.

3. About those “signs” that proved her visions were really visions: People claimed that she was weak and sickly, and certainly she spoke often about how sickly she was, and how difficult the charge she had been given, but after reading American Prophet I wonder. She was healthy enough to travel the world. She was healthy enough to preach regularly. How sick was she, really?  Certainly she self-reported a laundry list of illnesses, but her constant activity tells another story. Maybe she really was sick, and God constantly intervened, shoring her up so she could preach, travel, and write–or maybe she was stronger than she thought.

4. How different was she really from the “false prophets,” mesmerists, and hypnotists she so decried? Maybe those who found similarities between her visionary trance state and mesmeric and hypnotic trance states were onto something. Certainly holding an 18-pound book at arm’s length for an extended period of time is amazing–but people are capable of amazing feats, given the right motivation and circumstances. Perhaps the trance state allowed a woman who saw herself as weak and sickly the opportunity to be something more. Certainly, she was part of an era where people were primed and ready to see signs and wonders. Again, we find the Rorschach test. Those who believe will see God’s hand; others will see a story  it is impossible to prove, perpetuated by those with a vested interest in its veracity.

5. What about the prophetic visions that didn’t pan out? And with the visions God didn’t give her?  (One would think that somewhere He would have thought to whisper, “Take the cornflakes patent.”) She explained them away by saying the God’s people had failed–that they had not worked hard enough, been devout enough, sacrificed enough for the furtherance of his work (and incidentally the support of the Whites). But again, we’re faced with a central issue–if this is God speaking through his servant Ellen White, and if he “knows the end from the beginning,” as Ellen White maintains time after time, why would he give her information he knew to be false?

6. What do we do with the evolution in her visions? Certainly we would expect her views to change and evolve as a person, but she was claiming to be God’s spokeswoman. Things she was “shown” early in her life (I’m thinking particularly of the “closed door” doctrine, which held that no one who had not accepted the Advent message by 1844 could be saved) she disavowed later, when motivating the faithful to continue supporting “the work” dictated that there be some point to continuing that work. Obviously, if salvation was impossible for everyone who had not seen the light by 1844, there was no point in continuing proselytizing. Nor would there be any point to further church growth. Adventism might have continued as a health and education reform movement, but as a religion it would be defunct.

So what do the Rorschach inkblots say about me? I find myself going back to two issues that for me, discredit her. The first is that she lied about how she wrote her books. This is about more than just unauthorized borrowing. This is about her own descriptions of her process. She claimed that she had gotten her information in vision, straight from God, and that she had subsequently “found” the same information in others’ books, and appropriated it for her own. This might have explained a few isolated instances of plagiarism, but when estimates of appropriated material run from 30 to more than 70 percent of some of her books it simply no longer is credible. The reality is that Ellen White hired researchers and editors to both mine her previous writings and the writings of others, and then repurposed  or simply regurgitated the work for her current book. While I believe inspiration can take many forms, and one can indeed be inspired by something one reads, the central fact remains that when Mrs. White denied that she had been inspired by reading others’ work (or having others seek it out and then present it to her) and instead claimed that everything came to her directly in a vision from God she lied about her manner of inspiration. For me, that fact casts doubt on her other writing, particularly her testimonies, where so very often what God ‘showed’ her proved spiritually, professionally and financially advantageous to her personally.

And that, of course, begs the larger question: If Ellen White was less prophet than savvy enterpreneur, what happens to the religion that was so profoundly shaped by her words? Does it simply ignore its prophet’s feet of clay, or does it examine itself, excavate its own “present truth,” and find a way of being a positive influence a troubling world by moving beyond one of its central, if increasingly questioned, foundations?

And the final question: What if it wasn’t a case of either/or, but both? What if Ellen White did receive information in visions (leaving aside the question of where they may have come from) at some points–but then, when visions failed her, what if she resorted to other, less savory, methods? Would such a person be worthy of the veneration she still, in many cases, receives? Is it possible to determine what material was inspired by God, and what was inspired by perceived financial need, by the drive for power, by the need to protect one’s income, by the need to continue to be relevant? I wouldn’t even know where to begin. Placing Ellen White in her historical context reveals a fascinating woman who truly achieved remarkable things. But I am not sure the picture I saw revealed a convincing prophet.

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So The Boy comes home from school a couple weeks ago and tells me there are parent-teacher conferences coming up. Because I am a Good and Caring Mom (and because I live in a small town, and the school administration and teaching know where I live and while Hunt Me Down if I don’t show up) I dutifully trot myself down to the school on the night of conferences, The Boy in tow. It’s a beautiful place, our school. I think it was designed by the same guy who designed Central Park in New York (he did a number of schools in our area, apparently while he was out slumming), and the building has been kept up, but not aggressively modernized. Our school has not an auditorium, but a theater, with theater seats, plaster molding and a crest around the proscenium, and a stage. I sit in the dark in that theater and I slip out of time, and sit with all the other parents who have listened to their children play and sing from those seats. It’s a good part of history, and I love history.

I particularly love local history, and so when The Boy’s history teacher tells me that she’s going to have the students read Deep Creek, a novel based on local history, I am intrigued. She explains that the incident on which the novel is based occurred at Deep Creek, on the Oregon side of the Snake River.

So I go home, and download the novel onto my kindle and start to read, and then every afternoon The Boy and I sit in the sun outside our coffee shop and talk about the book we’re both reading. At least we do that for a few days, and then I get far, far ahead of him, so we can’t talk about it anymore lest I spoil the story for him.

I finish the book. It’s a terrible story. Well written, but a terrible story. The facts are these: A group of Chinese miners were camped at Deep Creek on the Snake River while they mined various sites in the area. And then one day a group of seven cattle rustlers swept down upon them, tortured and massacred them. According to some sources it’s the worst such even in Oregon history.

That was bad, but then it got worse. Turns out that the men doing the massacring (and there’s virtually no doubt who they were and what they did) weren’t just cattle rustlers. When they weren’t rustling cows and and massacring Chinese miners these men were good, upstanding, church-going members of the Wallowa community. They were ranchers, farmers, laborers, family men in some cases. In fact, that was their primary defense–that they were “good men” (in one case a “good schoolboy” with a bright future in front of him–the youngest member of the group was in his mid-teens) and so of course wouldn’t have done such a thing, and if they did, well, the Chinese probably deserved it–they weren’t real Americans. They looked different, spoke a different language–there was some question whether they had souls. Certainly they didn’t see America like the good folks in Wallowa saw America…is any of this starting to sound familiar?

In the end, the three men who were caught were acquitted (they blamed the others who had evaded capture–even though all of the men had been there, and from the ammunition recovered it appeared that all but possibly one had participated in the killing). After all, they were Good Men, and the Chinese were, well, Chinese, not good Christians, likely not even fully human. Nobody was even completely sure how many men were there–eventually the best estimate was that around 34 men had died at Deep Creek. There wasn’t even an accurate record of their names. Besides, they were dead, and Deep Creek was so very, very far from anywhere. Even if one of the miners had survived, he quite likely wouldn’t have been allowed to bring legal action, or possibly even testify, since they weren’t citizens. In the end It was easier, and better for Lewiston (the closest town) to simply push the dreadful incident into one of those dark and shadowy corners where we put the shameful things that remind us that all too often we are more than we appear. In this case, the records were literally shoved out of sight–lost or hidden for nearly 100 years in a basement.

Eventually the records were unearthed, and there was a sort of acknowledgement of the Deep Creek Massacre–the cove where the creek enters the Snake River is now called Chinese Massacre Cove. But we still don’t have a firm record of them men’s names who died that day. After all, they were Chinese, not real Americans.

I finished Deep Creek, and found myself wondering about the men who perpetrated this outrage–and about the people who chose to close their eyes to the monsters in their midst, to deny that “good men” had done a horrifying thing–and torturing and killing 34 virtually unarmed men is horrifying, particularly since there seems to have been no real reason for the act apart from race hatred.

What does it mean to us when the “good men” we respect and admire commit evil deeds? What does it mean that we prefer to look the other way, to refuse to call their actions by their true names, and hold them accountable? What does it mean when we refuse to demand an accounting from those who have done evil in our name, when we say we choose to “focus on the future?” How can we have a healthy, happy future when it’s built on such a shoddy foundation?

There has been a lot of talk about returning to the principles that we like to ascribe to our forbears. Nobody likes to mention Deep Creek. Nobody likes to mention the havoc wreaked on the people who were here before us. Nobody likes to mention the deep prejudice that has marred our history.

There are many good and honorable things in our national history, but there are also dark and shameful things, things with which we have yet to really grapple as a nation. Like the men judging the “good men” who went out one weekend and slaughtered 34 other men for no good reason, those who shout the loudest about returning to our forbears’ values don’t like to acknowledge the deep wounds those who went before us caused.

Why does this matter? Because the values that have come down to us have been shaped by those “good men” who loved their children, tended their farms, and in the off season rustled cattle and slaughtered defenseless men. It’s not a spoken thing, but the fear and hatred of the alien, strange, and foreign persist. Listen to the debate about guest workers. Listen to the rabid rhetoric directed at “Islamist Extremists”–and many seem to have forgotten that there are any other kind. Listen to the hate speech about healthcare making us “like Europe.” The attitudes that shaped the tragedy of Deep Creek are very much with us because the values that created those attitudes are still very much with us.

And that is why I get nervous when I hear conservative public speakers and politicians begin to wax eloquent about the virtues of our forbears, and how we should return to their values that “made America great.” Yes, crossing the continent took great courage. Surviving took great ingenuity. Exploiting and enslaving the vulnerable and robbing, imprisoning, and slaughtering those who were here before us because we coveted what they had took a very different set of skills.

All too often these days it seems that conservatism is paired with increasingly open racism, sexism, and exclusionary language and policies. Conservatism in its most virulent form has become little more than an attempt to roll back history on the social contract–and with that rollback we are seeing a new public acceptance of sexism and racism that would have been considered gauche and backward in the last years of the last century.

I don’t believe those restrictive, divisive values made us strong. I think they made us bullies. I don’t believe we should return to those values. I believe we should recognize that those who came before us were human, and sometimes monsters and heroes rode around in one skin, just as they do today.

History is important–we learn from it. But after we learn from it we should grow beyond it. We should recognize that Thomas Jefferson might have written movingly about freedom, but he still kept slaves, just as the men of Wallowa were good family men–and criminals and murderers. Perhaps this is the lesson of our time–understanding ourselves means understanding the darkness and the light that live in each of us.

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  • Red Tash–buy her books!

    Hi, Zack.

    I’ve heard about you.  Yeah, you.  The teenaged boy with the wisecracks, right?

    Your friend’s mom, Sherry, told me about you.  You with the snarky comments & the funny retorts.  Sherry said you’re a really great kid.  But why did she mention it, you ask?  She said you noticed one of my books on her Kindle.  She said you thought it was a horror novel.

    Well, kudos to you, Zack.  First of all, for being interested in books.  I’m not being a smart aleck at all, either.  That’s a lifelong habit that’ll only continue to serve you.  Even if you go through periods of being more interested in video games or girls or beer, eventually you always come back to books.  I mean, when was the last time you looked up cheat codes on twitter?  How to meet girls on Pinterest?  Maybe you’re too young to be researching beer, but someday, kid, you might want to learn how to brew your own.  Oh, the places that Kindle can take you.

    But enough about you, let’s talk about me.  😉  Let’s talk about the Wizard.  Remember him?  This guy?

    Meet the wizard–he’s free! Click here to download.

    Kinda scary?  Good.  He’s not a bad guy, this wizard, but he’s sure wrangled a few.  He’s a bit aloof, an observer of men, more than a participant of our culture.

    Who is he?  What does he want?

    Well, in the first Wizard Tale, The Wizard Takes a Holiday, he just wants to kick back and watch a movie.  There’s a whole horror film fest going on, and he wants to take it in.  Instead, he ends up herding magical toddlers and dealing with misplaced trolls.  Such is life in rural Indiana, my friend.  Such is life.

    Click here for more of the Wizard.

    The second wizard tale is quite a bit longer, but it’s still a short story, not a full-fledged novel, and definitely not even a novella.  It’s called “The Wizard Takes a Fitness Class.”  Scary, huh?  What, are you telling me you enjoy gym class?  What kind of sicko are you?  Of course the story’s scary, I mean, it’s got zombies in it.  Demons, even.

    Okay, okay, so it’s really not that scary of a story.  More of an ironic zombie story.  Did you know those existed?  No?  Me, neither.  Not until this very moment, but I think it’s a fair label.

    And it’s only fair that there’s a good balance between humor and horror in every tall tale, isn’t there?  I mean, there’s the thrill of fear, and the comfort of a good laugh.  Too much of one or the other, and story just won’t fly.  Pure terror gets boring without anything to bump off of, doesn’t it?  And we’ve all seen a comedy jump the shark as the bits attempt to go more and more over the top.  By the end of the show, it’s not funny anymore, just absurd—maybe so absurd it is funny, but unless you’re aiming for absurdism, you should probably always keep that balance in mind.

    Now don’t let me tell you what to like, Zack.  If you want to like the absurdist, then go for it.  I like it a bit, myself. There’s nothing like a zany madcap romp.  I love a story with heart, though.  A nice, big, squishy, bleeding, torn-apart-and-staining-the-carpets-as-it’s-tossed-by-the-mouths-of-dogs heart.

    Ewwwww…squishy

    Sorry, Zack, I couldn’t help myself.

    I hope you enjoyed “The Wizard Takes a Holiday.”  It’s only 1500 words, so in the time it took me to write this post, I could have written a whole ‘nother Wizard Tale.  A short one, anyway.  “The Wizard Takes a Holiday” is a freebie, and the sequel is only $.99 on Amazon, or free via Smashwords with a coupon code through the end of July.

    Meet Roller Deb–

    And if you liked those, let’s talk about a little gal named Deb who’s about your age.  She skates away from home and joins a fairy/troll roller derby league.  Sure, it might sound like a “chick book” to a fella like you, but plenty of guys have liked it.

    (If I can wrench the keyboard out of Red’s grubby little mitts for one minute, Zack, I’ll give you a link where you can read more about Roller Deb here.)

    Axel Howerton calls it a “tale of rockin’, rollin’ and full metal fantasy! I love this damn book.” Scott of Indie Book Blogger gives it five stars, and reader John Hundley also gives it five stars, noting that “this is an action book.”

    But enough about that, Zack.  I’ll let you get back to your reading.  Have a great summer, man!  I hope to hear from you.

    Here are some links, if you’re interested:
    http://RedTash.com

    Amazon profile
    Barnes & Noble
    Other platforms/paperbacks
    Facebook
    Twitter
    Pinterest
    Goodread
    s

     

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Troll Or Derby
Red Tash
ASIN: BOO8BMUKMC
Pub Date: June 14, 2012

So Red Tash has a new Kindle book available on Amazon, Troll Or Derby, and I managed to score a pre-release review copy, and wasn’t that a lucky day for me? I’m familiar with her quirky, fun characters from her Amazon Shorts—check out “The Wizard Takes a Holiday” for a fast, fun example—so I was somewhat prepared for the folks I met when I opened Troll Or Derby. There’s Roller Deb herself, of course: a teenage girl from a bad neighborhood just about everybody in town assumes is gay, and who is also a fairy in imminent danger of fledging.

Roller Deb’s life’s ambition is to skate in the roller derby.  Her mom’s a drunk and hates her, and her sister’s a pain in the neck beauty queen with a meth lord boyfriend, so her life’s far from ideal, but it doesn’t really fall apart until her beauty queen sister goes missing. Roller Deb’s mom tells her to get gone and not come back until she finds her sister, which seems harsh, but Roller Deb goes along with it, and sets off on adventure that will change her life—and her world.

Roller Deb learns that there’s considerably more to the people around her than meets the eye. There’s Jarrod McJagger, mobster, drug lord, roller derby team owner—and troll; Harlow, dump scavenger, rock star, and mostly estranged nephew to Jarrod McJagger, and therefore also a troll. There’s the guy who runs the skating rink—also a troll, who gives Roller Deb a pair of magic skates.

For a book that deals with fairies, Troll Or Derby is surprisingly gritty. Tash’s fairies owe more to the “Good Neighbors” of folklore—beings it paid to treat with wariness and respect—than they do to Disney. There’s nothing cute and sweet about Roller Deb—she’s tough, and she’s scrappy, and she’s strong, and not above throwing the occasional elbow.

For all the mythic overtones, the dangers she faces are surprisingly believable—she fights off the sorts of dangers that any teenage runaway might face, and she does it not by evoking some magical power—for most of the book she’s not aware that she has any—but by using her courage, wits, intuition, and strength.

This is a story that kept me reading, and I’m not exactly in the teenager target demographic. It moves fast, and Tash’s prose is as addictive as McJagger’s fairy meth.  Roller Deb finds herself in a world that’s a scary, ugly place in many ways, and Tash portrays that world and its denizens in realistic terms—something that makes the weight and impact of the decisions Roller Deb must make all the more compelling. This story is more than just a “pretty face”—it’s a story about a girl who, in dealing with a far from ideal world, learns that there is much more to her than she ever dreamed. I say “buy it.”

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