W. P. Kinsella

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W(illiam) P(atrick) Kinsella 1935–

Canadian short story writer and novelist.

Kinsella, a native of Alberta, received favorable critical attention for his first collection of short stories, Dance Me Outside (1977), and has been hailed as one of Canada's most talented fiction writers. In Dance Me Outside, Kinsella introduces a Cree narrator named Silas Ermineskin who appears in Kinsella's second book, Scars (1978), and in his most recent collection of short fiction, Born Indian (1981). Critics find his realistic depiction of North American Indian culture balanced in its judgment and effective in its combination of pathos and humor.

In Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa (1980), Kinsella focuses on characters who have vivid imaginations and creative means for coping with life's disappointments. Shoeless Joe (1982), based on the title story in Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa, is a comic fantasy about an Iowa farmer who builds a baseball stadium in his backyard and anxiously waits for Shoeless Joe to return and play. Most critics were enchanted by the novel, which combines fictional and autobiographical perspectives.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 97-100.)

George Woodcock

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[Readers of Canadian literature] have had a plethora of guilt-ridden fiction written by white authors about Indians, and a little fiction written by Indians and Metis in which blame is laid on the whites with unconvincing stridency; the truth lies somewhere lost between them. W. P. Kinsella has found a way out of this impasse in a comic approach that restores proportion and brings an artistic authenticity to the portrayal of contemporary Indian life which we have encountered rarely in recent years. Indians living on reservations, Kinsella suggests to us, are not entirely pitiful victims, nor are white men always bullying tyrants. On the contrary, the Indians of Dance Me Outside, with their own strange leaders like the medicine woman Mad Etta, have managed to create on their reservations and in the corners of the prairie towns where they feel at home a life that may be full of moral and physical pitfalls … but which is at the same time a life of their own, held together by a traditional mutual aid that makes the reservation a refuge where any person belonging to the group can return and expect support with no questions asked. Beneath all the comic situations that arise out of the incompatibilities of white and Indian attitudes towards life and its objectives (for only alienated Indians have ambitions in our sense), it is this solidarity of family, clan and tribe that in the end makes us feel that the Indians are in fact more self-integrated than the frenetic officials who attempt to turn them into imitation white men. Yet the saddest characters in all the stories are not the white men, but the Indians who willingly imitate them, and these include not only the would-be establishment politicians like Chief Tom, who becomes successful only when his wife publicly performs a traditional dance he detests, but also the verbose Red Power agitator, Hobart Thunder, who becomes the victim of his own inflammatory propaganda, misunderstood by the Indians who listen to him. Laughter and evasion have always been excellent means of cultural survival, and in the stories which form Dance Me Outside, W. P. Kinsella deploys these elements with a virtuosity that reminds one of Hasek's use of fictional mockery as a social weapon in The Good Soldier Schweik. Survive, evade, remain yourselves, was Hasek's message to the Czechs, and that is not far from Kinsella's message to the Indians. (pp. 100-01)

George Woodcock, "Oberon's Court," in Wascana Review (copyright, 1976 by Wascana Review), Vol. 11, No. 2, Fall, 1976, pp. 98-102.∗

Anthony Brennan

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a book is populated by characters called Robert Coyote, Frank Fence-Post, Sadie One-Wound, and Poppy Twelvetrees, my response is usually a groan in anticipation of an attempt to make restitution for or to make me pay for Wounded Knee. Dee Brown's work seemed to call forth lost tribes of white men who discovered roots they never knew they had. The Great Spirit moved within them, and they felt, or at least suspected, a tickle of feathers down their backs. Kinsella's bookDance Me Outside is all the more refreshing because it quite consciously eschews ersatz heroics and any kind of nostalgic, mythopoeic reflections on a technicolour golden age.

This collection of almost a score of stories gives us wry, picaresque vignettes of life on an Albertan Reserve near Wetaskiwin. A teenager, Silas Ermineskin, recounts to us, in a syntax that has stubbornly survived the tinkering of school-teachers, the adventures of his friends and relatives. The book is held together by a sardonically amused response to the mysterious habits of the white men. We learn how confidently Wilbur Yellowknees handles his stable of whores, how skillfully Old Joe Buffalo takes revenge on a white farmer, how relieved Annie Bottle is when the child she gives birth to in a barn dies, how the gargantuan Mad Etta makes magic in trying to solve Rider Stonechild's amorous problems. The stories are low-key, deliberately unspectacular, full of rueful mirth and a carefully accumulated wisdom, as Silas learns the ways of his world. They are as far as can be imagined in mood and intention from the souped-up mythology and hokey gibberish that Carlos Castaneda peddles.

The book very effectively illustrates the variety of ways in which Indians are not merely victimized but are conditioned to expect and accept victimization…. The narrator enjoys stealing the white man's best lines and forking them back mockingly, as when he defines a prosperous Indian: "The house is painted and they got a car that runs." Kinsella does not, however, set up the whites as straw-men. One of the absurdest figures in the book is Hobart Thunder, a militant Indian who comes to spread the gospel of violence and becomes a victim of it. Silas and his friends cast a shrewdly sceptical eye on politicians, both red and white, who seek to use them. Their posture is stoical rather than aggressive. Any casual violence they happen to unleash on their enemies must give the impression of being caused by dumb foolishness rather than by calculation. Kinsella's people have developed many of the strategies found in concentration camps. There is no celebration here of noble, old-fashioned heroism. The best we can ask for, as in such a vast range of modern literature, is the ethics of the survivor. But the Indian paradoxically has an advantage over many other survivors. The reserve, which is in so many ways a trap, is also the source of strength: "With us here, it don't matter what you done, it always okay for you to come back home." Kinsella makes it clear in many of his stories that the Indian harbours a kind of bewildered contempt for the white men who so consistently cast aside the comforts of this refuge.

One of the best stories in the book, "Ups and Downs," recounts the roller coaster adventures of Silas and his friend on a trip to Las Vegas. Whether they are winning a thousand dollars and living in a suite or broke and sleeping on a golf course, the next day they manage to maintain an air of imperturbable, cocky amusement. They have what Kinsella in another story calls panache. It is an error to think that this results from having nothing to lose. Even as they take advantage of the white man's stereotypes, they refuse to submit to them. They manage effortlessly to "live on the edge," as the west coast hipster would phrase it. In reading this picaresque account of violence and mayhem, I was inevitably reminded of Hunter Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. On reflection what seems remarkable is the self-conscious lengths Thompson has to go to in breaking away from up-tight white society. He invokes the whole self-destructive mythology of the romantic hero; he invents a monstrously berserk alter-id-Dr. Gonzo; he blows his brains out on a smorgasbord of drugs—then he can feel free enough to tear through the straight world like one of the horse-men of the apocalypse. Kinsella's characters do not melodramatize themselves. They are aware that Indians have been treated like dangerous children for at least a hundred years. When an opportunity arises to fulfill the image in spades, it seems churlish to pass it up.

One of the advantages of having these stories gathered together in a collection is that one comes to enjoy the flavour of the characters in a wide variety of situations and to appreciate their ingenuity in honing the art of the survivor. One of the disadvantages is the repetition and the sense that too many of them are pitched to achieve a similar impact. There is no really outstanding story in the collection, none which reveals a great reach or power in reserve, or which takes any great risks. Many anthropologists have begun to use the methods of the short story writer in accumulating anecdotal case studies. The stories here are thoroughly enjoyable, but Kinsella will have to reach out a little more if he is to avoid being crowded off his turf by sociologists. But it is pleasant to find a man who can mock the pathetic attempts of the 'apples'—those with red skin desperate to be white inside—and who would surely be able to nail those white writers who desperately try to invent a new identity as red warriors. (pp. 137-38)

Anthony Brennan, "Down and Out in Montreal, Windsor, and Wetaskiwin" (copyright by Anthony Brennan; reprinted by permission of the author), in The Fiddlehead, No. 115, Fall, 1977, pp. 137-40.

Terry Andrews Lasansky

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Dance Me Outside is a vibrant and funny collection of stories…. Written in the first person in a lean style, they concern an eighteen year old Indian named Silas Ermineskin who lives on a reserve just south of Edmonton, Alberta.

Silas is an impassive and resourceful kid, who, intent on his future, trains doggedly at a government technical school to be a mechanic. He shrugs off an ever-present prejudice that looms large as the distant Rocky Mountains. Traditionally, education is his only out, but English is a foreign language and he still hasn't got all the verbs right. He is also highly inexperienced with the white man's ways and getting someone who calls him a "wagon-burner" to tell him the time of day is like making the earth turn the other direction.

Kinsella, however, knows both sides well. "Feathers," for instance, is a comic, skilled portrayal of the ménage à trois, climaxed by the omnipotent Indian dance….

Many of these stories have appeared previously in Canadian magazines. Gathered here, they represent a strong first collection.

Terry Andrews Lasansky, in a review of "Dance Me Outside," in Western American Literature (copyright, 1978, by the Western Literature Association), Vol. XII, No. 4, February, 1978, p. 328.

Choice

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W. P. Kinsella is a gifted Canadian writer who chooses rather oddly to present his stories through the persona of a Cree Indian, Silas Ermineskin. [In Scars, the] narrator's English is fractured in syntax but vivid in image and metaphor. Kinsella manages to provide a tragicomic perspective on the white and Indian worlds as they collide in a series of extravagant misunderstandings. The book gets off to a slow start, but the stories pick up with "John Cat," and the rest of the book is fine indeed, especially "Goose moon" and the title story. This is the second collection of Kinsella's Indian stories, and the reader cannot help wondering how long he will continue to write in this way. While the writing shows more skill than Dance me outside (1977), Kinsella does repeat himself a bit and might do well to turn his satirical eye on white Canadian society from a vantage point within it. All in all, Scars is a good collection of stories and a strong antidote to the rather toxic myths about the Mounties and the supposed racial harmony of Canadian society. (pp. 79-80)

A review of "Scars: Stories," in Choice (copyright © 1979 by American Library Association; reprinted by permission of the American Library Association), Vol. 16, No. 1, March, 1979, pp. 79-80.

Frances W. Kaye

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W. P. Kinsella is not an Indian, a fact that would not be extraordinary were it not for the stories Kinsella writes about the Cree Silas Ermineskin; and his sister Illiana, who moved to the city and married a very straight white man; and his friend Frank Fencepost; and the medicine lady, Mad Etta, who wears dresses made from five flour sacks, with ermine tails fastened along the sleeves, and the rest of a Cree world. Kinsella's Indians are counterculture figures in the sense that their lives counter the predominant culture of North America, but there is none of the worshipfully inaccurate portrayal of "the Indian" that has appeared from James Fenimore Cooper through Gary Snyder. Kinsella writes about Indian men who get drunk and beat their wives and children, women who run away to be prostitutes, an Indian used-car salesman who has an inside track on cheating Indians, and a chief who uses his Indianness only for the political leverage it gives him to be more white. Yet it is only in the face of these defeated people and these betrayals that the significant victories of the other characters and the real strength of the lives they have created and salvaged become apparent.

Scars is Kinsella's second collection, and readers of the first, Dance Me Outside, will be glad to see the development of earlier characters and themes, although this collection, and each individual story, stands on its own. "Fawn" is a sequel to the earlier story "Butterflies," in which a white girl finds a refuge which her own society couldn't give her. "Mr. Whitey" is a further exploration of the need for but defeat of a genuine messianic force, first stated in "Penance." In Scars it is again the women who bear the brunt of living in a culture that keeps from being crippled only by its sense of being alive. Silas, who is studying to become a tractor mechanic and also studying with Mad Etta to become an assistant medicine man, continues to serve as narrator. His voice unifies the stories as his life unifies at least some of the paradoxes of his culture.

Yet finally what makes Kinsella's stories work is his eye for detail and his sense of how a few remembered images come together to create a place and a people that compel belief. Kinsella's Indians wear the counterculture uniform of jeans, yet in Kinsella's hands this is no uniform but a theme on which to compose variations. The Indians confuse some visiting Italian film makers. "They say you Indians are all dressed up in denim like cowboys supposed to be. They want to know if cowboys dress up like Indians." The used-car dealer is dressed like an imitation cowboy, too, with his "old cowboy boots" and "wide brown belt." A girl who has struggled to acquire seeming security and a decent life wears a white sweater and "clean jeans." A woman in jeans and running shoes lacerates her arm in mourning for her child which her husband has given away, and the blood drips "from her fingertips into the fine grey dust and onto her running shoes." Yet for all their ubiquity, jeans can't be fully adapted to the old ways of the Cree and thus are a compromise part of the culture. (pp. 84-5)

Scars is an excellent book: moving, funny, often brutal, yet joyously affirming sex and life and honor and responsibility, and handsomely produced withal. (p. 86)

Frances W. Kaye, "'Don't Freeze Off Your Leg'," in Prairie Schooner (reprinted from Prairie Schooner by permission of University of Nebraska Press; © 1979 by University of Nebraska Press), Vol. 53, No. 1, Spring, 1979, pp. 84-6.

Anthony Bukoski

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[The ten short stories in Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa] mark a considerable change in direction for W. P. Kinsella whose first two collections, Dance Me Outside and Scars, deal with life in and around a Cree Indian reservation. The stories here, most of them successful, are set in such widely differing places as Disneyland; an Iowa cornfield (more than one Iowa cornfield actually); Maintoba Street in Victoria, known as "The Pit," Kinsella says; a whorehouse in Edmonton, "jumping-off place for American troops going and coming on the Alaska Highway"; and a forlorn San Francisco bar, looking "as if it had endured a century of continuous Monday nights" where the protagonist in the story "Last Names and Empty Pockets" drinks with Janis Joplin.

In addition to these rich and varied land-and-cityscapes (the people inhabiting them are just as diverse), Kinsella's stories constantly change mood and tone, divided as they are almost equally between the fantastic and the real. "Fiona the First"—accorded an Honourable Mention in Best American Short Stories 1980—is one of the fantasies. It deals with a sort of Ancient Mariner doomed for eighty years now to wander airports and railway stations picking up girls. The title story, "Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa," is another fantasy story, this one concerning a farmer who constructs a ballpark in his backyard in order to witness the return of the legendary Shoeless Joe Jackson…. These are fanciful, entertaining stories.

The realistic ones—the very fine "Waiting for the Call," for instance, or "Mankiewitz Won't Be Bowling Tuesday Nights Anymore"—are even better. Told in the terse, clipped speech of a street-wise juvenile, "Waiting for the Call" is an affirmation of the power of love to survive in the face of hardships, while "Mankiewitz Won't Be Bowling …" chronicles the lonely death of a taxi driver. In another realistic story, "A Picture of the Virgin," the central character is forced to admit to himself and to his friends that he had fallen for a prostitute's story, paid her simply to hear her troubles. In a scene reminiscent of the disillusionment at the end of Joyce's "Araby," Charles recalls looking up at a frosy streetlight: "Soon the taunting voices were far behind me, and there was only the cold and the stars and the sounds of my feet on the frozen sidewalk."

Aside from "A Picture of the Virgin," what is most refreshing in these ten stories is their emphasis on hope and regeneration. In Kinsella's world when physical survival is impossible, one often survives in the works of others. In Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa, other people are the means of our redemption, our salvation. Through them, the dead are reclaimed, exonerated of past misdeeds. In "First Names and Empty Pockets," the doll maker retools Janis Joplin's image in his workshop, building a testament to her. In "Mankiewitz Won't Be Bowling Tuesday Nights Anymore," Bert, the fellow taxi driver, plans to name the league's bowling trophy after his deceased side-kick, Manny. And in "Shoeless Joe …" that fabled ballplayer is exonerated of wrongdoing in the 1919 World Series when an Iowa farmer toils three summers to build a place for him to play again. It is this act of believing that makes Kinsella's characters appealing—no easy task in fiction. The breakdown of the act of faith, on the other hand, makes "A Picture of the Virgin" all the more disturbing.

If there are disappointments among these stories, they are modest ones. "A Quite Incredible Dance," for instance, is too much "a story." Intended as an account of the psychological torment a father undergoes when his daughter marries a man "even more loathsome than he [the father] anticipated," the ending is contrived, I think, the characters unconvincing finally. One anticipates the story-teller here. Another piece, "Sister Ann of the Cornfields," seems incomplete, a fragment, an exercise in descriptive prose and little else. Nevertheless, W. P. Kinsella's Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa is worthy of our attention. An important change, it represents a branching out from the so-called "Indian" stories of Kinsella's first two collections. There is no telling where this masterful writer will find the characters for his next book. Wherever it is, I want to be there to meet them. (pp. 126-27)

Anthony Bukoski, in a review of "Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa" (copyright by Anthony Bukoski; reprinted by permission of the author), in The Fiddlehead, No. 129, Spring, 1981, pp. 126-27.

Mark Czarnecki

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[The stories in] Born Indian are cleverly written in a free-wheeling style…. This is Kinsella's third collection of funnysad tales about white-Indian confrontations, most of them narrated by Silas Ermineskin, a young Cree from a central Alberta reserve. It's cowboys and Indians in reverse, with the stupid, bigoted whites outfoxed, outjoked and outsexed by crafty salt-of-the-earth natives. Unquestionably, white racism deserves all this and more, but the crude articulation of stereotyped emotion glossed over with aw-shucks moralizing … adds up to submissive politics and punching-bag art.

Kinsella's difficulties with perspective are unfortunately abetted by his greatest strengths. To a remarkable degree, he invests his characters with credible speech patterns, behavior and ideas. But because the narrator Silas has no distance on his own stories, the result is a puppet show, realistic and detailed yet devoid of insight….

The format of Born Indian is questionable too. Most of the stories have been published on their own in various literary magazines, thus genealogies, marriages, professions and so on have had to be re-established each time. No allowance has been made in this collection, however, for the fact that the cast of characters varies little from story to story, making much of this explanatory information redundant and irritating. All they add up to is an extended sitcom—why not fess up and present them as such? (p. 61)

Mark Czarnecki, "Schemers and Redeemers," in Maclean's Magazine (© 1981 by Maclean's Magazine; reprinted by permission), Vol. 94, No. 19, May 11, 1981, pp. 58, 61.∗

Ian Pearson

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In Shoeless Joe, Kinsella is boxed in by his own inventiveness. Having J. D. Salinger sleuth around a baseball mystery is a delightful idea, but a difficult one to execute. The writer has to recite such lines as: "It's a sad time when the world won't listen to stories about good men." Of course, this is W. P. Kinsella, not the real Salinger speaking. To put your own words into a living person's mouth is merely presumptuous, not clever.

Similarly, the flights into fantasy are too easy and obvious. The author wants us to release our reason and break down the barriers between the living and the dead, the prosaic and the mystical. But Ray's alternate universe of baseball is too contrived to be seductive, and the pace is too sluggish to work as a madcap picaresque. Kinsella reaches for the otherworldly magic of Gabriel García Márquez. What he achieves is the limp fancy of Richard Brautigan. (pp. 59, 61)

Ian Pearson, "Fantasy Strikes Out," in Maclean's Magazine (© 1982 by Maclean's Magazine; reprinted by permission), Vol. 95, No. 16, April 19, 1982, pp. 59, 61.

Terrance Cox

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Shoeless Joe is a novel from left field: a unique left field on the Iowa farm of Ray Kinsella. One night Ray hears a voice say, "If you build it, he will come," and knows that "it" refers to a baseball park and "he" to Shoeless Joe Jackson. Most prominent of the Chicago Black Sox, Jackson in 1919 was banned for life from baseball for throwing the World Series.

W. P. Kinsella pursues baseball, most literary of sports, to the anagogic and still manages to write a humane and comic book. His manner recalls Marquez, Jack Hodgins and, not accidentally, J. D. Salinger.

Ray builds his magic stadium and while watching Shoeless Joe and others play ball, hears the voice again, this time saying, "Ease his pain." The mission clearly means kidnapping J. D. Salinger and taking him to Fenway Park for a Red Sox game….

A clipping that Ray carries extols Salinger's ability to make readers love his characters: "They are so real, so vulnerable, so good, that they remind me of that side of human nature which makes living and loving and striving after dreams worth the effort." Kinsella shows the same ability in Shoeless Joe. His novel celebrates imagination and effort, wittily posits serious theses on the role of baseball and other art forms and provokes various kinds of laughter.

I'm not, like Ray and W. P. Kinsella, sentimental about baseball, but Shoeless Joe makes me wish I were.

Terrance Cox, in a review of "Shoeless Joe," in Quill and Quire (reprinted by permission of Quill and Quire), Vol. 48, No. 6, June, 1982, p. 32.

IAN B. McLATCHIE

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In Born Indian, Kinsella creates the composite impression of a carnivorous, overtly hostile white society: "the daughter, who was named Dora, went off to Edmonton, got swallowed up by the city and it be just the same as if she died."… On one hand, the sheer absurdity of racial oppression becomes almost a liberating force: as one character says, "When we're down as low as we are on the totem pole then the only thing there is to do is laugh."… Balanced against the humour of the stories, however, is the sense of dangerous unpredictability which generally prevents the narratives from lapsing into the seductive category of the formulaic short story. For Kinsella's longtime narrative persona, Silas Ermineskin, any tendency towards artistic complacency is prevented by the constant evidence of his "beneath the underdog" role as an Indian and a creative artist….

As in the case with most single-author story collections, a successive reading of the fourteen stories in Born Indian accentuates certain narrative and structural deficiencies. Most notably, Silas occasionally seems little more than a mouthpiece for his author; at these moments, the charge of Kinsella's presumptuous liberalism seems justified. And yet, it is a tribute to Kinsella's story-telling ability that, overall, the stories benefit from placement in an anthology. In particular, the subject of cultural, rather than economic, poverty emerges as the most important and convincingly stated theme of the collection. The surprising shift, in the final piece of the collection, to magic realism, however, radically affects the significance of this theme. The process of cultural degradation is momentarily reversed as Silas realizes, in his ability to create fictional worlds, a far greater power than that of his antagonists. The story, "Weasels and Ermines," is one of the more impressive pieces of short fiction to appear in Canada in recent years. (pp. 146-47)

Ian B. McLatchie, in a review of "Born Indian" (reprinted by permission of the author), in Canadian Literature, No. 93, Summer, 1982, pp. 146-47.

Maggie Lewis

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To say W. P. Kinsella's "Shoeless Joe" is a book about resurrection and baseball makes it sound foreboding and silly, and sometimes it is, but that doesn't matter at all….

Kinsella does wonders in this book: The visual fantasies are so rich that whether you believe them or not, you can't help imagining them. There is no resisting Ray Kinsella—the protagonist—and his first vision of baseball past….

Ray Kinsella is a fervently enthusiastic character. You might get tired of mawkish and too physical descriptions of his love for his wife and his insistence on the kittenish cuteness of his daughter. But when he's talking baseball, the enthusiasm is catching. In fact, it was enough to make this reviewer, whose only contact with the game is the memory of being hit on the head with a softball she was supposed to catch, love baseball herself for a while. This is a convincing novelist.

Even when Ray Kinsella kidnaps J. D. Sallinger (yes, J. D. Salinger), the novel keeps you believing. It's not so much believing: it's wishing. Things that happen in this book are so wonderful, you feel that if they didn't happen, they should have. Baseball players who had vanished into mythology keep turning up, one by one, night after night. The long-reclusive J. D. Salinger speaks again. The fantasy just keeps getting better. There is no lurking dark side of the story to instruct the reader not to ask too much.

The book must have been pure wish fulfillment for its author, who is described as spending his summer touring US baseball capitals. He has a rare talent for conveying pure joy. He waxes corny and nostalgic, but it doesn't matter, because by then the thrill of seeing all the old baseball stars is yours, too. It gets harder to put the book down as your expectations get going for the next great happening.

The descriptions of landscape are poetic, and the baseball details will warm fans' hearts and not get in the way of mere fantasy lovers. This book would make great reading on a summer vacation. In fact, this book is a summer vacation.

Maggie Lewis, "A Fantasy for Baseball Lovers," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1982 The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), July 9, 1982, p. 14.

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