The Keeper is a book that does so many things, and does them well.
In just over 300 brisk pages, Kelcey Ervick tells nothing less than the story of her life, filtered through the impact of 1971’s Title IX Education Amendment (authored by Indiana Senator Birch Bayh), which prohibited sex-based discrimination in schools, and had a seismic impact on girls’ and women’s sports.
The Keeper carries off a tricky balancing act, telling the story of Ervick and her soccer teammates as they struggle to grow into adulthood, maintain delicate friendships and battle blatant sexism (at the national championships, the media asks the group of teenage girls which of them will be the first to get pregnant), while also placing their stories in the larger context of women’s sports over the last century.
It’s an astonishingly, sneakily ambitious book, about so many things: how society limits our dreams, and we go along with it; how we shed, and then reincorporate, our old selves multiple times throughout our lives; and how we are all, ultimately, on the same team.
But before all that, The Keeper opens with a sense of magical realism, as a flock of cardinals traverses the Ohio River, and transforms into the girls of the Cardinals Soccer Team out of Cincinnati. There are other touches of the magical and surreal, as well. A team dad is referred to as “a cyborg in cut-off jeans.” Ervick’s illustration of him shows a regular dad in regular cut-offs, holding a regular, clunky camcorder from the 1980s. But the words present a more fanciful visual that cuts against it, and brings us into the young soccer players’ vivid imaginations.
Along with Ervick’s own memories, this book is clearly the result of deep research, both into the historical facts and figures, and into Ervick’s own childhood, through journal entries, newspaper clippings, videotape and other first-hand documents.
The gorgeous, shifting art style also reflects this combination of research and recollection. In scenes that rely on memory, the figures often feel intentionally half-formed, the art style rougher, the linework and colors slightly misaligned. A row of trophies form abstract shapes; a row of featureless, girl-shaped figures walk by each other, stating that familiar refrain: “good game.”
By contrast, historical figures are far more well-defined–sharper in our collective memories than our own individual childhoods. The same can be said for images less reliant on memory, such as recreations of photographs, and a full-page portrait of the present-day Ervick.
The Keeper is clearly the product of a masterful storyteller, with an extraordinary level of control over her craft and a gift for subtle emotional devastation. This book rarely lingers over the pain of growing up; at one point Ervick writes, “by the final scene, we had lost the nationals, lost our virginity, and lost 2 of our fathers,” and then immediately moves on. But the accumulation of detail, the high level of insight and honesty, adds up to a powerful story that will stay with you for years to come.
Paul Allor is a comic book writer known for their work on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, GI Joe and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, as well as creator-owned books such as Hollow Heart, Monstro Mechanica and Past the Last Mountain, among others. Paul is also a writing instructor at Comics Experience, an online school for comic book creators. They live in Indianapolis with their blind rescue dachshund.
Kelcey Ervick is the author of the graphic memoir, The Keeper (Avery Books/Penguin). Her three previous award-winning books of fiction and nonfiction are The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová, Liliane’s Balcony, and For Sale By Owner. She is co-editor, with Tom Hart, of The Field Guide to Graphic Literature, forthcoming from Rose Metal Press in 2023. Her stories, essays, and comics have appeared in The Rumpus, The Believer, Washington Post, Lit Hub, Colorado Review, Passages North, Quarterly West, Booth, Notre Dame Review, and elsewhere. She has received grants from the Indiana Arts Commission, the Sustainable Arts Foundation, and New Frontiers in Arts and Humanities at Indiana University. She has a Ph.D. from the University of Cincinnati and is a professor of English and creative writing at Indiana University South Bend.
Monthly reviews of books written by Indiana authors are made possible by the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana Authors Awards and Indiana Humanities. Opinions expressed in this review are solely those of the reviewer, not any affiliated entity.