W. P. Kinsella Kinsella, W(illiam) P(atrick) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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 entire section is 419 words.)

Anthony Brennan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

When I learn that 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 book Dance 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...

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Terry Andrews Lasansky

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 608 words.)

Anthony Bukoski

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Mark Czarnecki

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 178 words.)

Terrance Cox

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 264 words.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 327 words.)

Maggie Lewis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 389 words.)