Critical Evaluation

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W. P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe is an epic fantasy in a contemporary setting. Such fantasy usually features a legend as background, and that role is fulfilled in Shoeless Joe by the infamous Black Sox scandal. In 1919, the Chicago White Sox was the best team in the major leagues, reaching the World Series. No player embodied the team’s transcendent talent more than did Shoeless Joe Jackson. White Sox owner Charles Comiskey kept player salaries miserably low, and local gamblers proposed to the players a substantial share of their winnings if they deliberately lost, or “threw,” the World Series. Jackson was allegedly one of eight players who participated in the conspiracy, and the White Sox indeed lost. The eight players were banned for life from Major League Baseball. Many claimed that Jackson was dimwitted and illiterate and could not have understood what he was agreeing to. Moreover, Jackson arguably played well during the series, batting .375 and recording twelve hits. Despite the outcry, Jackson never played Major League Baseball again. Thus, a legend launches the epic fantasy told in Shoeless Joe.

Shoeless Joe is suffused with the magic typical of epic fantasy. Like Frodo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings (1955; collective title for The Fellowship of the Ring, 1954; The Two Towers, 1954; The Return of the King, 1955), Ray Kinsella is an unremarkable figure who suddenly experiences magical events. Ray, an ordinary farmer from Iowa, repeatedly hears a voice from no discernible source. The voice says little; twice, it speaks but three words. Through magic, these terse communications implant in Ray’s mind entire sets of instructions. The magic also touches Ray’s wife, Annie. No one would blame Annie were she to express serious misgivings toward Ray’s plans. The magic assures Annie that all will be well. Similarly, the character of J. D. Salinger somehow knows that if he accompanies Ray on his quest, good will result. Shoeless Joe offers many ordinary characters touched by something extraordinary.

The story supplies another integral ingredient of epic fantasy: the quest, in which a hero leaves familiar territory and travels long distances to a hostile environment. The second message delivered by the disembodied voice directs Ray to leave home and drive more than halfway across the United States to the home of J. D. Salinger, a reclusive writer who consistently renounces his fame. Salinger reluctantly agrees to accompany Ray, first to a baseball game and then to Minnesota, before returning with Ray to Iowa. Salinger fulfills another role common to epic fantasy: the sage companion to the hero, one with perspective that the hero lacks.

Fantasy is also characterized by a conflict between opposing forces. In Shoeless Joe, love is the most pervasive benevolence besides magic. The most apparent love is shared by the two principle characters. Her love for Ray leads Annie to support Ray instead of disparaging him. She does not know the details of his quest, but her love is so sure that she trusts him beyond question. Annie believes in what he claims he must do, and she passionately wishes for his success. Furthermore, Ray genuinely loved his deceased father. Ray is far too young to have seen Shoeless Joe play baseball, but the athlete came to life for the young Ray through his father’s wide-eyed tales of seeing Jackson play in amateur leagues after he was banned from the majors.

Love is expressed on other levels in Shoeless Joe . Ray repeatedly acknowledges his love for his adopted state of Iowa. Ray and Annie also frequently speak with love for the farm...

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that they call home and through which the novel’s opposing force comes into play. Annie’s brother Mark represents greed and the lust for power. Mark is a genuine threat; he is not interested in why or where Ray has gone. He only knows that Ray could have been doing something to restore the income lost when he plowed under his corn and built an entirely frivolous baseball field.

Mark plots to seize control of the farm and exploit it for income. That his character represents greed is evident because he is deprived of the magic experienced by the other characters. Mark cannot see Shoeless Joe or any of the ballplayers. However, as is the case in much epic fantasy, the good forces ultimately prevail. As a result of confronting Ray, Mark sees his niece Karin tumble from the bleachers and nearly die. Mark feels genuine remorse. His business partner, Abner Bluestein, gives Ray his jacket to cover Karin after she falls. This momentary crack in their greedy natures allows them to see Doc Graham, who sacrifices his incarnation as ballplayer Moonlight Graham to minister to Karin until she recovers. Such selflessness compels Mark and Bluestein to withdraw their demands and vanish from the story.

Finally, epic fantasies often end with a character leaving the world for a better one, as Frodo Baggins, for example, sails away from Middle-earth at the end of The Lord of the Rings. Shoeless Joe concludes with Ray and Karin fondly watching as J. D. Salinger accompanies the phantom ballplayers to wherever they go when they vanish amid the rows of corn. Shoeless Joe may feature numerous genuine settings and human characters, as opposed to elves and dwarves, but it has all the ingredients of epic fantasy. The overall impression at story’s end is one of joy preserved, with a chance for more wonders yet to unfold.

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Critical Context (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series)

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