Kinsella turned to writing late in life, publishing his first story collection at the age of forty-two. Since then, however, he has become one of North America’s most prolific authors, winning numerous awards and receiving critical acclaim for his stories about western Canadian Cree Indians and the mystical and magical realms of baseball. Still, he is probably best known for the 1989 film adaption of his novel Shoeless Joe, which was released as Field of Dreams, an apt and telling title.
Kinsella’s first literary success came in 1974, when he started publishing the stories that would appear in Dance Me Outside, pieces that dealt predominantly with a young Cree Indian named Silas Ermineskin. Silas is the character that Kinsella comes back to most in his stories about the Cree Nation, but he has assembled quite a cast of characters on the reserve, and he tells their tales in more than one hundred stories, which are collected in Dance Me Outside; Scars; Born Indian; The Moccasin Telegraph, and Other Stories; The Fencepost Chronicles; Brother Frank’s Gospel Hour, and Other Stories; and several other books. In his tales about the Cree Nation, Kinsella focuses on issues of truth and hypocrisy, frustration and endurance, love and hatred. The stories are hard-edged yet sensitive, and they are often very comical. Though Kinsella is not a Canadian Indian, he has been widely praised for his portrayal of the western Canadian Cree Nation. It has often been said that Kinsella’s vision of contemporary Canadian Indian life is authentic and accurate, though he certainly has his detractors.
One of the stylistic marks that sets Kinsella’s work about the Cree Nation apart is the voice that he adapts. Silas, for instance, tells his tales in broken English that provides vivid imagery and recalls the tone of Silas’s literary ancestor, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. The grimness of the subject matter is often complemented by the lightheartedness of Silas’s tone. In The Moccasin Telegraph, and Other Stories, Silas tells eighteen tales set on the Ermineskin Reservation that revolve around attempts by his friends and family to reconcile traditional customs with modern innovations. Again, Silas’s voice and vision allow for an interesting take on everyday absurdities. In The Fencepost Chronicles, Silas is back as the narrator, but his best friend, Fencepost Frank, is the main character of the stories; in Brother Frank’s Gospel Hour, and Other Stories, Kinsella closely considers the growing relationship between Silas and Frank. Again, Kinsella utilizes Silas’s unworried tone to relate stories that range from witty to weighty.
Kinsella’s other major works deal predominantly with the game of baseball. While his work about Canadian Indians has garnered him critical attention, his stories and novels with baseball as their dominant motif have gained Kinsella his most considerable recognition. Shoeless Joe, probably Kinsella’s best-known and most-enduring work, blends comic fantasy and Magical Realism in a story that deals with issues of faith, belief, dreams, innocence, and human communion. Its success is evidence that these timeless themes make the work appealing to a wide audience. In Shoeless Joe, Ray Kinsella, the Iowa farmer at the center of the novel, is thrust into a supernatural situation where he encounters the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson, the famous ballplayer who was banned from baseball for his involvement in the Chicago Black Sox scandal of 1919. While other writers might allow the fantastic elements of the story to overwhelm the reader, the author never loses sight of the book’s major theme: the loss of youthful innocence. The Iowa Baseball Confederacy also deals with youthful ideals and explores human relationships in the light of a mystical baseball experience.
The same elements that have allowed for Kinsella’s success, however, have caused others to respond negatively to his work. In his baseball books especially, Kinsella has been accused of extreme sentimentality. Even critics who have acknowledged Shoeless Joe as a great baseball book complain that Kinsella’s later baseball writing is overly nostalgic and highly derivative of his best early work. In the end, though, the measure of what readers gets out of Kinsella’s work will be determined by what they bring to it. The baseball fiction will be exceptionally easy for avid baseball fans to swallow, while others may reject the saccharine vision of the sport as pure and awe-inspiring. Similarly, Kinsella’s books about the Cree Nation are also the subject of mixed criticism. While the majority of critics have praised Kinsella for his daring and accurate portrayal of Canadian Indians, others have dismissed his attempts at writing about Canadian Indian culture as arrogant and unnecessary. Interestingly, some commentators have criticized Kinsella’s Ermineskin books for being overly sympathetic toward Canadian Indians and blatantly unfair to Caucasians. In any case, Kinsella’s literary reputation continues to grow, and he is often the subject of heated critical debates.
First published: 1982
Type of work: Novel
A comic fantasy about an Iowa farmer who builds a ballpark in his cornfield and summons the spirit of baseball legend Shoeless Joe Jackson.
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