Down & Derby Book Review

Down and Derby: The Insider’s Guide to Roller Derby

By Jennifer “Kasey Bomber” Barbee and Alex “Axles of Evil” Cohen

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Down and Derby, written by skaters of the LA Derby Dolls, is a non-fiction book that's part history of roller derby, part how to be a derby girl – a fresh meat skater’s how-to guide. The book is packed with profiles, photos, sketches, sidebars, an appendix full of roller derby media and just about everything a new skater or enthusiastic fan would need to be immersed in the sport.

Barbee and Cohen write with a casual, uncensored tone, and the humor is unmistakably roller derby – sometimes dry, sometimes sassy, but always clever.

“Rock-n-Roller-Games – a version of roller derby that came complete with a Wall of Death, a pit of live alligators, and a soundtrack that would make Kenny Loggins cry bearded tears.”

“A pack of expert skaters, on the other hand, will be hitting each other constantly, making Faces of Death look like a Doris Day musical.”

“You might have noticed at your first practice that there was a certain smell in the air – one that could have made a slaughtered skunk on a summer night in Florida smell like a rose. That’s not the fragrance of your nervous excitement – that’s the fine bouquet of roller derby.”

Readers are taken through the evolution of roller derby and shown that the sport is as “inclusive as it is cool,” as one reviewer wrote. The evolution of roller derby is rich, and the authors write with detail from the humble beginnings during the Great Depression up to the start of the Women Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) in 2005. The information about WFTDA is skimmed down to the barest, and although only an insider would know that, the omission is glaring and disappointing.

In turn, the section about how roller derby is played is dreadfully boring to the veteran skater. At this point, I questioned why the book included "insider's guide" in the title when most of the information was aimed at a civilian. Ultimately, I didn't give a shit, because I was reading a book about roller derby. A book that marks the revival of roller derby. A piece of history.

The “Am I a Derby Girl?” chapter included a magazine-style quiz, followed by a how-to-get-started chapter with advice on how to pick a league, what kind of gear and skates to purchase, how to pick a derby name and number and how to get involved with your league. The most shining moment is the roller derby ten commandments:

1. There is no part-time in roller derby.

2. Roller derby is a sport.

3. You will get frustrated.

4. You will fall down.

5. You will get hurt.

6. There’s no sorry in derby.

7. Roller derby is a team sport.

8. This ain’t Fight Club. You DO talk about derby. All. The. Time.

9. Roller derby is your new family.

10. Even the after-parties have winners.

Each commandment is followed by a hysterical half-page explanation sure to horrify any would-be fresh meat skater. The following chapters summarize the experience of derby volunteers, recreational leagues, men’s leagues and junior leagues, and the book ends by posing the question “Will derby last?” The authors confess their worry about the longevity of the modern incarnation of roller derby, but find hope in the ever-growing junior leagues, where young girls hone their derby skills to play with the big girls one day. 

Down and Derby is an essential book for the derby volunteer, the new fan, the aspiring rollergirl or any reader curious about the sport of roller derby. The book compiles the history of the sport and cleverly marks the startup of history in the making: flat track roller derby.