W. P. Kinsella 1935-
(Full name William Patrick Kinsella) Canadian short story writer, editor, and novelist.
The following entry presents an overview of Kinsella's career through 2001.
Kinsella has earned critical acclaim for his short story collections focusing on modern-day Canadian Indians and for his novels and short stories about baseball. Several of his works—including Dance Me Outside (1977) and The Moccasin Telegraph (1984)—attempt to debunk stereotypes and distortions of the North American Indian by portraying contemporary Native Americans struggling to survive in caucasian societies. In the novels Shoeless Joe (1982) and The Iowa Baseball Confederacy (1986) and the short story collection The Thrill of the Grass (1984), Kinsella uses the game of baseball as his primary metaphor, focusing less on the onfield exploits of his characters than on the magical and rejuvenating force that the sport provides for its followers. Kinsella's skill at blending fantasy with realism in a poetically whimsical style has been noted by many critics and has prompted comparisons to American humorist Richard Brautigan.
Kinsella was born in Alberta, Canada, on May 25, 1935, to John Matthew, a contractor, and Olive Mary, a printer. Kinsella's father was a semi-professional baseball player who instilled in his son a love for the game at an early age. Before beginning his career in writing, Kinsella worked at a variety of jobs such as claims investigator, government clerk, and restaurant owner. At the age of thirty-five, he returned to school and received a B.A. in creative writing from the University of Victoria in 1974. In 1976 he was accepted into the Iowa Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa and received his M.F.A. from the university in 1978. He taught at the University of Iowa from 1976 to 1978 and later taught creative writing and English at the University of Calgary from 1978 to 1983. After the success of his first novel, Shoeless Joe, Kinsella left teaching to pursue a full-time writing career. He won the Books in Canada Award for first novels, the Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship, and the Canadian Authors Association Prize for Shoeless Joe. He has also been awarded the Writers Guild of Alberta O'Hagan novel medal for The Moccasin Telegraph, the Alberta Achievement Award for Excellence in Literature and the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humor for The Fencepost Chronicles (1986), and the 1987 Author of the Year Award from the Canadian Booksellers Association. Shoeless Joe was adapted for the screen in the 1989 film Field of Dreams, which was nominated for best picture, best score, and best adapted screenplay awards from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Beginning with Dance Me Outside, Kinsella has used Silas Ermineskin, a droll, self-conscious young Cree Indian from Hobbema, Alberta, whose broken English is rich in metaphor and imagery to narrate his series of short story collections focusing on Native Americans, The stories in Dance Me Outside portray the various ways in which Native Americans are conditioned to expect and resign themselves to victimization. The grimness of the subject matter is often lightened by the humorous dissimilarities of caucasian and Native-American lifestyles and worldviews. The Moccasin Telegraph depicts a Native-American community attempting to reconcile their traditional customs with contemporary technological innovations and bureaucratic legislation. Without putting inordinate worth on ancient Native-American culture, Kinsella extols the remnants of native wisdom that have survived in modern North America. In The Fencepost Chronicles Silas Ermineskin returns as a narrator, but the main character in the stories is his comical friend, Fencepost Frank. Silas, now a published writer, and Frank are travelling across Canada to cover the Pope's visit with the Native Americans in the Northwest Territory. Brother Frank's Gospel Hour and Other Stories (1994) continues the Ermineskin series, focusing on the evolving relationship between Silas and Frank. The stories range in tone from light-hearted—“Bull” revolves around an artificial insemination case in the Alberta Supreme Court—to serious—“Rain Birds” examines the results of corporate farming on the environment and “Dream Catcher” explores the reality of child abuse. The title story “Brother Frank's Gospel Hour” follows a staid evangelical gospel show that is disrupted by the colorful residents of Hobbema.
Aside from his works that focus on Native Americans, the dominant motif in the rest of Kinsella's oeuvre is the game of baseball. The novel Shoeless Joe, based on the title story in Kinsella's short story collection Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa (1980), is a comic fantasy about an Iowa farmer named Ray Kinsella who builds a baseball diamond in his cornfield in hopes of bringing back to life the late baseball star Shoeless Joe Jackson. Ray then kidnaps renowned author—and baseball fan—J. D. Salinger and gathers by supernatural methods an assortment of deceased baseball figures, including his late father, so they can redeem their lives on the playing field. Through a childlike optimism, Ray succeeds in reviving the spirits of all he attracts to the ballpark. The Thrill of the Grass employs realism in half of its stories and fantasy in the others. The realistic pieces chronicle the monotonous, dreary lives of minor-league baseball players waiting for their big break and their relationships with wives and girlfriends who are insensitive to their aspirations. The book's central theme focuses on the loss of youthful expectations and innocence and the disparities between dreams and reality. While most of the stories contain ultimately pessimistic overtones, the use of absurd humor and memorable minor characters lightens their mood. The Iowa Baseball Confederacy again utilizes baseball—this time a game between the all-stars of the mythical Iowa Baseball Confederacy and the 1908 Chicago Cubs—as a sanctuary in which people can sustain their youthful ideals. Kinsella tampers with time and combines realism and fantasy to create a world in which a ballgame lasts forty days in a continual rain. The Dixon Cornbelt League, and Other Baseball Stories (1993) uses mysticism and conflict to explore the humanistic nature of baseball players. Supernatural events permeate many of the stories, including “The Baseball Wolf” where a shortstop transforms into a wolf in an attempt to revive his fading career. In “The Fadeaway” deceased pitcher Christy Mathewson continues to relay pitching tips to his teammates on the Cleveland Indians through a dugout phone. Kinsella continues his use of baseball as central metaphor in the novel Magic Time (1998) and the short story collection Japanese Baseball and Other Stories (2000), which examines the lives of baseball players in Japan, where the game has become increasingly popular. He has also published several additional novels and short story collections, including Box Socials (1992) and The Alligator Report (1985), which consists of a collection of fanciful, surreal vignettes—named “Brautigans” after author Richard Brautigan—involving unexplainable events that occur in a run-down city neighborhood inhabited by alienated people.
Although Canadian by birth, most reviewers have categorized Kinsella as a North American writer, rather than a regional writer, due to his recurring fascination with the distinctively American pastime of baseball. While many critics have commended Kinsella's use of baseball as a metaphor for larger, spiritual themes, others have argued that he has overused the sport, noting that his later books often read like a rehashing of his previous works. Reviewers have also noted the recurring elements of nostalgia and magic realism in Kinsella's baseball books, with some finding such passages to be overly mawkish and optimistic. C. Kenneth Pellow has commented that “Shoeless Joe is about as sentimental a work as one should want to find. Indeed, it occasionally veers to the downright saccharine. Still, it maintains, throughout, a synchronizing of fantasy and realism that makes the sentiment palatable and causes one to appreciate the novel's serious artistry.” Most critics have praised Kinsella's regular use of humor in his novels and short stories, asserting that his comic observations often reveal profound truths about his characters and their environments. Don Murray has stated that, “Kinsella is a wit … in that he can perform his magic in ‘alternate universes’ as adroitly as other contemporary authors and he is in tune with the modernism of multiple time schemes and their comic possibilities.” There has been considerable critical debate surrounding Kinsella's portrayal of Native Americans in his works. Several reviewers have criticized Kinsella's attempts at writing Native-American narratives, arguing that, as a caucasian, Kinsella could never fully understand or competently portray Native-American culture. A number of critics have also faulted Kinsella for indulging in Native-American stereotypes. Gerald Vizenor, a noted writer of Chippewa ancestry, has argued that, “[Kinsella's] characters are cornered in racialism and limited in humanness; they act stupid most of the time and speak in a mock patois that is not tribal.” However, other commentators have faulted Kinsella's Native-American works—particularly Born Indian (1981)—for being blatantly unjust to caucasians and overly sympathetic towards Native Americans.