- Keeping Heart: A Memoir of Family, Struggle, Race and Medicine by Otis Trotter
Keeping Heart by Otis Trotter tells the story of one African American family’s experiences during some of the most pivotal moments of black history in the twentieth century. In his life, Otis Trotter has witnessed everything from the Great Migration to the election of Barack Obama. Yet, these events are not the exclusive focus of Trotter’s memoir. Rather, Keeping Heart sets such moments as the backdrop upon which a humorous, heartbreaking, and deeply moving portrait of the black family in recent American history is painted.
While a young child, Trotter’s family became a part of what historians refer [End Page 85] to as the second Great Migration in American history. This involved a postwar generation of African Americans making their way out of the South in search of better economic opportunities in other parts of the country. Trotter’s account of his family’s travails allows readers to see the individual hopes and sacrifices involved in a phenomenon that often gets reduced to a simple set of statistics. In 1960, Trotter’s mother decided to move her family from Vallscreek, West Virginia, to Newcomerstown, Ohio, in search of a “better life.” The young Trotter imagines Ohio to be a land of wealth and opportunity (42‒44). What he and his family initially found, however, were feelings of isolation and uncertainty. “We were like refugees in our own country,” Trotter says (56).
As his family adjusted to life in the aptly named Newcomerstown, they started to feel as if they had made a terrible mistake by leaving West Virginia. They were considered outsiders in their small community and faced harassment and ridicule from the other residents (57). Small for his age, and often in ill health because of a congenital heart condition, the young Trotter often found himself bullied by other children and involved in a number of fights, which Trotter describes as a constant battle for his dignity (57, 105‒7). To be sure, the Trotter family’s experiences as newcomers to Ohio were not all so grim, however. In one humorous anecdote, Trotter recalls his initial befuddlement on his first day of school, when he was confronted with the sight of a urinal for the first time (59).
Whether in times of laughter or sadness, however, a strong current that flows throughout Keeping Heart is the importance of family. Trotter opens the book by stating that he has no photos of his father with which to remember his face. Trotter’s father, Joe William Trotter Sr., was tragically murdered at the hands of his own brother in a fit of drunken psychosis when the author was only three years old (3‒5). This act had a devastating effect on the Trotter family and left them in a precarious state financially. Given the large size of Trotter’s family and his own recurring health issues, money was often tight, and the family struggled. As Keeping Heart emphasizes, however, what they often lacked in money they made up for in their close familial bonds. Of these bonds, Trotter writes, “Just as we loved our mother, she deeply loved all of her children and was committed to keeping us as safe and healthy as possible during our development. She wanted all of us to have successful lives” (201). It was this genuine love of life and a belief in its possibilities that infused the Trotter family’s existence and kept them together through turbulent times.
Memoirs often lean too heavily on the well-worn trope of overcoming adversity. While the narrative of Keeping Heart follows a similar path, what sets [End Page 86] it apart is its presentation and authenticity of voice. Trotter’s writing is vivid, clever, and never oversimplifies the story it tells.