Roller Babes: Tim Patten
The momentum builds up as the skaters enter the ring and they take their positions. The energy level rises and the adrenaline keeps pumping until the official start of the first race. Beginners have to start somewhere and the rink is not smooth but steep and the amount of laps numerous. Some had to skate for hours and others alternating hours among those that hoped to be chosen for a team. It’s not football, baseball or car racing it is my favorite sport growing up in the Bronx watching the skaters in the armory practice, warm-up and then take their spots: It’s Roller Derby and author Tim Patten brings it back to life honoring the amazing women skaters of the fifties.
Roller Babes features three young girls named Rebecca, Lottie and Elsie Mae each having their own reasons for wanting to leave the Bronx and find their paths in life. Each one living within their own worlds yet having the need to escape from it. Rebecca living in fear that her father would never stop sexually abusing her. An A student afraid to tell anyone but confiding in one friend. Lottie lacking self-esteem and constantly being ridiculed and bullied and Elsie Mae oogled by so many young boys especially one named Tommy always-seeking attention for herself. As the book opens we hear their stories and meet Buddy Wilson their soon to be trainer and hear his story about how he became a roller derby skater along with his partner Gloria. Roller Babes: Join the teams and enter the race. Can you keep up!
Roller derby is a contact sport that was created in the 1930’s by a man named Leo Seltzer a promoter from the windy city of Chicago wanted to monetarily gain from this roller speed skating. As you enter the pages of Roller Babes you will learn how Seltzer designed marathon speed races taking place on an oval track in the Chicago Coliseum. Races ran the skaters ragged as you will find out when you hear and see what they went through when our three potential skaters begin their races and learn the ropes. Long distance skating were replaced and teams were created a points were given for different forms of physical contact. Roller Derby was and to be is one of the most exciting contact sports and the talent on the rink was unsurpassable.
When Lottie, Elsie Mae and Rebecca enter the rink and Buddy watches them skate each one has a different style but he seems drawn to Lottie reminding him of his partner Gloria as the author takes us back in time to how they met, joined forces and their final race. Things change when the three girls become part of a beginner’s group and Elsie Mae falls for Tommy. The ropes are taught to them by Buddy Wilson a former Roller Derby star and when the opportunity to join a regular team comes about tragedy strikes first and then both Rebecca and Lottie just might make it to the big time. But, things are not what they seem and the girls are cruel but Lottie forges ahead to prove to herself and her father she can succeed. Meeting two of the icons and having to work with them proves dangerous for some as the amount of injuries mount up and the animosity grows. Patsy drinks and is abusive with her mouth as well as Roughie who seems to dislike Rebecca. Just when they are getting real money things go sour and the amount of ticket sales wanes and several of the girls need to find a way to deal with half pay while others decide to leave. Roughness, nasty moves and a sport that will either make you tough or bold you over in tears and in pain as you continue on the tour with Lottie and a young black girl names Ruby who readers will fall in love with for her kind ways, bold attitude and loyalty to her friends and team.
Some of the players got out of hand and when the teams had to play in the South the prejudice against blacks comes through but what Carol and Lottie do to prove their true loyalty and friendship to Ruby is heartfelt and heartwarming. As the tours increased the pressure does too and the change in what they call adding color or you might say more action to the game is apparent. One player gets arrested and is no longer going to roller skate while others take her place and things get more heated. Arguments ensue, teammates vie for position and Lottie just wants to stay ahead of the game and help her family back home. Newer players were treated to the wiles of those more experienced and many left while others had a great passion for the sport and would not give up. Playing for the home team or the visitors at times mattered to some as the color of the shirts red or white made a difference. Roller Derby and the teams were invited to Cuba to play and the end result was rioting when the right teams and the right players did not score or were hit. Lottie was determined to be on top and although she was not the most raving beauty she now after over a year in the league had to find a way to attract audiences, develop her own color and stand out like Belzak and Patty. The women of the 1950’s were bold and the story is based on real people and events that did occur while adding his own brand or flavor to the plot making readers join the jams, enter the rink and fight for their favorite players to win.
The author was a professional roller derby skating champion and his first hand experience comes through. Understanding the game, the mores of the times and explaining how the hierarchies exist each player within this novel, Lottie, Ruby, Carol and even Rebecca have their own reasons for wanting to escape their former lives and find an identity in roller derby. Ruby explains what happens to her and Carol dealing with a boyfriend that was wrong for her as well as Lottie for the first time developing self-esteem.
Oscar Wentworth was the man who coordinated and was in charge of who was let go, who got promoted and the extra pay in their checks when things went well. The in-fighting and on rink fighting at times was staged and at other times was real as jealousies evoked and players tried to injure others in order to provide color or interest to the audience or to make themselves look like stars.
Lottie was passionate about roller derby and practiced until her knees, legs and arms were sore and would not give up on herself no matter how much ridicule she took from Eva Belzak and some of the other skaters. When she looked like she would surpass her and on the rink received the desired “boos” she wanted for creating the diversions for the other team or the home team, Lottie beamed. Until almost the end of her career she never realized how revered and admired she was by so many. Never quite fitting in and looking not quite so feminine she never realized the changes within her until she met Harold he adored her. The short romance lasted just enough before Harold was sent off to war and the sadness behind the tragedy left her cold as Eva claimed something about Harold that was not true. From roller derby to stickball to sports in general Lottie was unstoppable. The staging of accidents, the bumps, bruising and brutalities of the sport are all vividly described not only by the author but the characters too. As you watch Lottie skate when some special people arrived in the audience you realize that most of what is done is for show and the dangers are real but Lottie, Carol, Ruby and the others soared.
Not everyone wanted women of color in the sport and the scenes involving Ruby and what Carol and Lottie do will make you understand why Lottie was so special and loved. Marriages that fell apart, racial tension during certain meets, the life of woman and their place in this time period and the fact that most men and even fathers thought they should stay home and learn to cook in order to run a household. Freedom of choice, the right to excel at what they wanted and the knowledge that you can do whatever you want if you work at it and never give up comes through loud and clear. The final meet is heart stopping, the pace if hard, the end result for one skater will surprise readers and a special moment at the end will bring tears to your eyes. Roller Derby: thank you Tim for keeping it alive and bringing it back in this outstanding novel of courage, jealous, love, understanding, competitiveness, joys, fears, tears and hopes. So, whatever your passion go for it and don’t stop until you put on your skates and go around the track and find your way to your own finish line.
Fran Lewis: Just reviews/ MJ Magazine