An Introduction to W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe

written by Chris Enns

 

From the moment a reader cracks the spine of author W.P. Kinsella’s celebrated book Shoeless Joe, they’re reminded how intoxicating and magical the game of baseball can be. Originally published by Houghton Mifflin in 1982, Kinsella’s novel is a mixture of baseball lore and the supernatural.

The hero of Shoeless Joe is Ray Kinsella, a former insurance salesman turned farmer whose ruling passions are his wife, daughter, Iowa, and baseball. The story opens with Ray relaxing on his porch considering the sunset and all the blessings in his life when suddenly, from nowhere and everywhere, the voice of a baseball announcer tells him “If you build it, he will come.” Ray listens to the instruction of the voice and builds a baseball diamond in his corn field. When he does, Shoeless Joe Jackson and other baseball players of yesteryear come to play.

Canadian born William Patrick Kinsella was a true baseball enthusiast. He inherited his love for the game from his father, John, who played minor league baseball. Growing up in Edmonton, W.P.’s passion for the game grew playing with friends on sandlots. Kinsella attended the University of Victoria, graduating in 1974 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in creative writing. In 1978 he earned a Master of Fine Arts in English through the Iowa Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa. He went on to teach English at the University of Calgary.

W.P. Kinsella penned more than thirty books of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, but his best-known work remains his first novel, Shoeless Joe. Shoeless Joe won the Houghton Mifflin Literary Award and was the inspiration for the film Field of Dreams. Released in 1989, the film starred Kevin Costner, Burt Lancaster, James Earl Jones, Ray Liotta, and Amy Madigan. Key phrases in Kinsella’s book became quotable dialogue in the film. “If you build it, they will come” and “Go the distance” are among the most popular lines in literature and movies.

Kinsella once wrote, Praise the name of baseball. The word will set captives free. The word will open the eyes of the blind. The word will raise the dead. Have you the word of baseball living inside you? Has the word of baseball become part of you? Do you live it, play it, digest it, forever? Let an old man tell you to make the word of baseball your life. Walk into the world and speak of baseball. Let the word flow through you like water, so that it may quicken the thirst of your fellow man.

Shoeless Joe embodies that sentiment. It has been described by book reviewers as The National Pastime as The Great American Novel.


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