In 1987, Kelcey Ervick was the keeper on a soccer team that competed in the U.S. Girls’ National Tournament. As the top four teams in the country squared off, they met with journalists who asked: “Who will be the first to get pregnant? Who will be the first to get married? Who will have the most kids?” So begins The Keeper: Soccer, Me, and the Law that Changed Women’s Lives, which is out this October from Penguin Random House. Ervick’s graphic memoir weaves together the history of women’s soccer (both in the United States and Britain), reflections of other writerly goalies (Albert Camus and Vladimir Nabokov), and her personal story of playing in high school and college.
The law referenced in the title that changed women’s lives is, of course, Title IX, and this year is its 50th anniversary. Title IX states “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal assistance.” At the time it passed, few could have guessed the impact it would have on girls and women on the field, court, and track. In comics and illustrated vignettes, Ervick looks back on a huge part of her life that wouldn’t have existed without the law: recreational soccer followed by a spot on high school and college teams. Readers meet Ervick as a teenager and star goalie on a winning rec team in southern Ohio.
The transformative effect of sports on young women’s lives is immediately clear: it’s more than sisterhood and sun-in, it’s the freedom to be more than “just a girl.” Still, dancing to Prince’s “D.M.S.R.” is as choreographed as the end of the game handshake, saying “good game” to each opposing player. Sports provide consistency throughout Kelcey’s life changes; from her parent’s divorce to switching schools, the uniform is there, a refuge and place of belonging. Ervick points out, “So much of our time together–our lives–happened between games. Moments when parents and refs shared a patch of shade.”
We get to see the origin stories of Ervick’s life on the field as well as that of women’s soccer. We learn that “ladies football” began in 1881 with a Scottish Suffragette and keeper, Helen Matthews. We read of their struggles to be taken seriously, the brief moments when they were extremely popular (the men being away at war), and how they hung up their uniforms, shuttled into traditional women’s roles. Through juxtaposing the histories of these founding soccer players and soccer moms along with her own life, Ervick makes the act of playing soccer become even more radical.
Ervick’s story is full of tension, but it’s found less in the plot, where we often expect to find the conflict in an autobio graphic novel. Instead, Ervick uses the form to explore tensions of identity and expectation–of both herself and on a larger, societal scale. Because the focus is less on plot, and because Ervick’s writing is so evocative, the book reads more like a compelling visual essay than a “graphic memoir.” As Kelcey, the character, grows and explores feelings of joy and angst, we see these feelings illustrated by her real, excerpted diaries. For example, she writes in her diary about the conflict between sports and art: “enemies to creative growth? Sports!” Ervick juxtaposes her teenage records with the similar struggles faced by Nabokov and Camus as goalies and writers. There’s the loneliness of the keeper’s role, for one. “He is the lone eagle, the man of mystery, the last defender,” Ervick quotes Nabokov. Later, as an adult, she finds a synthesis between her conflicting identities, saying that “An athlete who is a woman has more in common with an artist who is a woman than an athlete who is a man.”
After all, Ervick’s identity is not just that of an athlete and artist, but a woman and a mother. Here, too, we find a pull between identities, which is again reflected on a national scale. In one angering sequence, we see how the World Cup-winning women’s soccer team of 1999 was portrayed by the media. “In the lead up to the World Cup, the media devoted as much attention to the U.S. Women’s National Team’s LOOKS as to its play,” Ervick writes. Headlines trumpet: “U.S. Team Looking Good: Sex Appeal Parts of the Story,” “Talented + Sexy U.S. Has It All,” and “The Babe Factor in Soccer Team’s Success.”
Ervick’s comics have appeared in The Rumpus and The Believer and she has developed a unique approach to graphic storytelling. Her lively, impressionistic art combines digital illustration, painting, collage, historic documents and headlines, and scraps from old diaries. Turning the page, the reader never knows what they will encounter, from illustrated news clippings to colorful tableaus of full soccer fields. She also uses art of nature (often birds) to create lyrical, unexpected moments that punctuate the story’s emotional landscape. Nabakov and Camus appear throughout and are joined by feminist writing luminaries such as Virginia Woolf. In a deft use of the comics form, bell hooks shares a spread with Charlie’s Angels, demonstrating the false dichotomy of choices that girls are offered.
The result is an important documentation of the power of women’s sports, both broadly and intimately. Read against the backdrop of Serena Williams’s last tennis match and the pageantry of college football (played, with very few exceptions, by men), The Keeper reminds us that playing women’s sports is not just about what happens on the field–it is so much more. She ends with a call to action for women across different decades and “uniforms” to see one another as teammates and join together in camaraderie.
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