“The Keeper: Soccer, Me, and the Law That Changed Women’s Lives,” by Kelcey Ervick. New York: Avery Books, 2021. 336 pages, $27 (paperback).
In both life and art, Kelcey Ervick has colored outside the lines.
In this poignant graphic memoir, Ervick beautifully braids her adolescence as a member of the Cardinals soccer team with the beginnings of women’s sports in general, illustrating a focused history of the breakout teams and women who dared to push the boundaries of what society believed them to be capable.
As a too-tall, introverted, collegiate swimmer-turned-writer myself, it was as if Ervick had sketched stories right out of my own journal, and I was struck with the power of that solidarity – that the struggles of growing up out of the bounds of gender and bodily expectations was not only real but warranted the time, attention and empathy that Ervick brings with her art. In a few hundred pages, Ervick places herself among a long line of women who, time and time again, prove that which shouldn’t need proving in the first place: women kick ass.
To every woman in sports who has lived a life cleaved in two, who has felt they must always be sacrificing a part of themselves for another, who has been asked to choose between unfit or objectified on the field, brutish or palpable at school, between girl and athlete, this book is for you.
Seeing the rendition of Ervick’s journey from being in the papers to in the bleachers, from posing in jerseys to posing in prom dresses, my own memories of that inner conflict came crashing back in full color. The loneliness of it. The loneliness without it. There’s an indoctrination into sports and gender that happens before we’re old enough to understand it, and Ervick revisits this indoctrination with a thoughtful, graceful eye. Athletics and femininity are both studies in learned behaviors: a series of lessons ingrained until they become muscle memory. Pages of “The Keeper” are split between Keeper Kelcey who spends her nights doing hand drills with the ball in her room and Kelcey The Teenage Girl, who wants nothing more than for her crush to ask her to the school dance. Above all else, she is playing not soccer, but tug-of-war.
To every person who believes the lies – that women’s sports must not be as competitive or as difficult, that they must not require as much training, discipline, or physical prowess – and to my male peers on other college teams who cited Title IX for their problems with a shrug and sly eye roll as if to say that pesky Title IX, always ruining things for male teams, who deserve all the attention and funding, of course, and don’t appreciate being punished for having been there first, and expected me to roll my eyes along with them, how I wish I could go back and shove this book in their hands. They might not relate to Ervick’s sentiment, “I owed not just my sports career but my academic career to Title IX,” as deeply as I did, but the light of her reasoning, backed by equal parts logic, research and heart, would no doubt brighten their perspective.
“The Keeper” concludes as one might expect, with an analogy about the great team of Womanhood, all working toward a brighter future. However, if the final image is somewhat predictable, the journey there is anything but.
In a voice that is honest and humble, worldly and introspective, Ervick portrays the damaging complexities of being a “Lady Cardinal,” a lady athlete, a lady artist, a lady academic, and acknowledges the war our society likes to wage between that feminine title and any additional modifier. She aptly illustrates how those labels that follow us incessantly (lady, woman, female) can be proudly brandished as a triumph and still stifle, for how impressive can something really be if we can never take it off?
Ervick doesn’t know the answer. She offers not solutions, but companionship, reminding female readers with every page: you are not alone, you are not alone.
– Reviewed by Kate Nezelek, MFA program in Creative Writing at Western Kentucky University.
Editor’s Note: The author will discuss and sign copies of her book at the Bob Kirby branch of the Warren County Public Library on Thursday, October 27, at 6 p.m.