Book Review: Derby Life by Em Dash

More than 9 months ago, Gotham Roller Girls’ Margot “Em Dash” Atwell started a Kickstarter to crowd-fund a new book on Roller Derby. Her aim was to produce a new introductory book on the sport, showing a prospective new member of the derby community everything they needed to know to understand the culture and demands of Derby, and enthusing them about the sport.

Released to backers on the 17th June 2015, and preorderable from Gutpunch Press for nonbackers, Derby Life: A Crash Course in the Incredible Sport of Roller Derby is the result.

Inevitably, as a “Book for prospective new skaters”, comparisons with 2011’s Down and Derby will come up. And, yes, both books have a somewhat similar overarching structure – Down and Derby and Derby Life both start with a chapter on the history of the sport, going back to the original Walkathons in 1920s New York, and sections following on various aspects of derby culture (what kit you need, what the rules are, “Derby attitude”…).
Of course, a lot has changed in roller derby culture over the last 4 years, and this is really key to the differences between the works – while Down and Derby projects the more actively Riot Grrl tone still around in 2011, and is innocently Americentric in its treatment of the sport, Derby Life is happier to emphasise the actual sporting and athletic aspects of the game, and tries to be less parochial in its conversation. For the most part, this is an improvement on the former book, although I did sometimes miss the punchier tone that the younger sport evoked.

If there are flaws in Derby Life as a book, they also stem from its determination to be even handed – a decision to try to make the book independent of any particular ruleset means that the rules discussion becomes a little too generic for my taste (and, yet, still mentions that the purpose of pivots is to take star passes, even though that isn’t true in several of the rulesets that Em Dash mentions in the same chapter). The same problem occurs in the tactics/strategy section, presumably in an attempt to keep the text relevant in the face of a rapidly changing metagame. In general, I found that the best chapters were those which tried to actually give more detailed advice to the prospective skater: the gear, training and health/psychology sections were all very good.

All of this said, most of the Kickstarter backers are not the target audience of Derby Life. We are generally existing members of the derby community, and so introductory advice, as comprehensive as Em Dash makes it, is always going to feel a little lacking. For us, the crowning glory of Derby Life is right at the end: the collected selection of derby anecdotes, advice and expressive writing from individual skaters across the world. While they are extremely varied in length, style and content, each of them is a heartfelt gem, and as effective advocate for roller derby as the other 80% of the book.

Judged as a modern, comprehensive introductory guide to participation in Roller Derby as a sport, Derby Life is an excellent work, and you should feel no hesitation in getting a copy for any prospective skaters you know, especially if you were already thinking of buying them Down and Derby. More established members of the community, however, will still want to pick up a copy just for the collected Derby Stories section at the tail end of the book.

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