The Canadian author W.P. Kinsella died on Friday, September 16. H’es most famous for the novel Shoeless Joe which was adapted into the film Field of Dreams. From the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, if you’d asked me my favorite author, I would’ve said Kinsella. It’s been a long while since I read a Kinsella book and the last time I read him as an adult I found it wasn’t as good as I remembered, but still a key figure in my reading life.
I was introduced to W.P. Kinsella in an odd way when I received his short story collection The Thrill of the Grass as a Christmas gift from my grandmother. It seemed an example of my grandmother being clueless since I actually didn’t like baseball at this point in my life. Also, it was clear she hadn’t read the book since there were many depictions of sexual activity that I’m sure she didn’t want a 10-year-old reading. But maybe Grandma was a conduit for something because within a year I had become an avid baseball fan. And Kinsella’s sex scenes were not bawdy fantasy but depictions of the complications and conflicted feelings of people in committed relationships, something a boy should learn about.
And so I became a devoted Kinsella reader, getting every book of his I could find at the library or the bookstore. His baseball stories were easier to find than his stories about Native Americans, although I read some of the latter too. My favorite W.P. Kinsella story is The Iowa Baseball Confederacy which involves the 1908 Chicago Cubs, time travel, an endless baseball game and a torrential downpour, and a statue of an angel (which was creepy long before Doctor Who made angel statues creepy). Here are some other memories of Kinsella’s work:
- Long before I read anything by Toni Morrison and Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, this was my first exposure to magical realism.
- A story of how the Catholic Church hierarchy is so removed from the people of the church, and the harm it causes.
- Stories of First Nation people in Canada, including one where a couple disguise themselves as Indians from the subcontinent because they’d be treated better in Canada.
- A swindler using the distance between the pitcher’s mound and home plate to win a bet.
- Baseball fans use the 1981 strike to replace the artificial turf at the local baseball stadium with real grass, one square foot at a time, and the community that forms to tend the grass.
- Tributes to J.D. Salinger, Richard Brautigan, and Janis Joplin, among others, in his works.
- A manager has to deal with the knowledge that the Cubs will win the last pennant before Armageddon and there’s nothing he can do to stop it.
- A story in which a bunch of male friends share punchlines of jokes and the protagonist reveals to himself that he is gay, through a punchline.
- And my favorite story of all, “How I Got My Nickname,” which is the ultimate bookish nerd fantasy in which a bookish nerd gets a spot on the 1951 New York Giants (as a pinch hitter because he can’t field, throw, or run) and discovers that all the other Giants are readers who have literary discussions in the clubhouse.
I remember being a bit irritated that Field of Dreams deviated from the book – especially regarding J.D. Salinger and the oldest living Cub – as well as being cheezy and melodramatic, but yeah, I liked it too.
Here’s to W.P. Kinsella, and the stories we tell and the memories we share.