Tuesday, September 20, 2016

W.P. Kinsella, 1935-2016

I don't want to be one of those guys. The guys who hear about a movie, and say, "The book was better."

But if you liked the baseball-themed movie Field of Dreams, do yourself a favor, and get the book on which it was based: Shoeless Joe, by W.P. Kinsella. You will love it.


William Patrick Kinsella was born on May 25, 1935 in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. He grew up nearby in Darwell, Alberta. Like me, he was taught to read early by his mother, so he was already reading when most kids were struggling with it. The family moved to Edmonton when he was 10, and his literary education came when he worked in his high school's library.

He worked for the Alberta Provincial government, and in 1967 moved to Victoria, the capital of the Province of British Columbia, when he ran an Italian restaurant and drove a taxi. He took writing courses at the University of Victoria, got his bachelor's degree there in 1970 (at the age of 35), and then moved to Iowa, where he got a master's degree at their famed Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1978. This is why he used Iowa as the setting for his most famous work.

He moved back to Alberta, teaching English at the University of Calgary, and spent the rest of his life writing about 2 subjects: Baseball, and the indigenous peoples of North America -- which we Americans have, so frequently, ignorantly called "Indians" but have begun to call "Native Americans" or "First Americans," and the Canadians call "First Nations." About them, Kinsella would publish Dance Me Outside, Scars, Born Indian, Moccasin Telegraph, The Fencepost Chronicles, and others.

In 1979, he began to write a story about a poor Iowa farmer named Ray Kinsella,  who hears a voice in his cornfield, telling him to take steps to bring back to life the 8 Chicago White Sox players banned from baseball for life for their role in the 1919-21 Black Sox Scandal, particularly their best player, the all-time hero of the protagonist's father, Joe Jackson.

Jackson had once played a game in his native South Carolina, before signing a professional contract, with new shoes that didn't fit well, and they hurt his feet, so he took them off and played the rest of the game in just his socks. The nickname that would follow him for the rest of his life, and would become the title of W.P. Kinsella's book, was Shoeless Joe.

SPOILER ALERT: In 1989, the film Field of Dreams was released, based on the book, with significant differences:

* Ray has an identical twin brother, Richard, distinguishable by a scar on his forehead, until Ray bumps into something, and develops an identical scar. The movie mentions no siblings for Ray.

* The author who had written about losing his dream of playing baseball was J.D. Salinger, author of Catcher In the Rye, a book that had a deep effect on W.P. and many other boys of his generation (and later ones). Salinger had used characters named Ray Kinsella and Richard Kinsella (the protagonist and his brother) in stories. He had also written that he had wanted to play for the New York Giants, but never made it, the Giants moved, and the Polo Grounds was torn down. At the time, the real Salinger was living on a hilltop in New Hampshire, and refused to write again or see visitors. In order to avoid a lawsuit, the filmmakers made the author Terence Mann, a fictional black author involved in the 1960s civil rights and antiwar movements, who had wanted to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers, lamented their move and the tearing down of Ebbets Field, used a character named John Kinsella (Ray's father), gave up his causes ("I was the East Coast distributor of 'involved'") after the disastrous year that was 1968, and secluded himself in a small apartment in Boston, where he became a computer programmer, designing ways to teach children to solve conflicts without violence.

* Ray and Salinger -- or "Jerry," as he ends up calling Jerome David Salinger -- do the smart thing and look Archibald Wright "Moonlight" Graham up in The Baseball Encyclopedia (what we used before Wikipedia and Baseball-Reference.com came along), and knew before heading out that he was already dead. In the movie, Ray and Terence don't find out until they get to Graham's adopted hometown of Chisholm, Minnesota. Maybe hoping that Graham was elderly but still alive as they set out worked better for dramatic effect, but their lack of preparation was foolish and out of character, at least for Terence.

* The timeline is moved up. The novel clearly takes place in 1979 (I'll explain later). Ray and Annie don't make mentions of any 1960s activism -- although, unlike the movie's versions of them, they would have been old enough. And Graham's real history is used: His one and only major league appearance is on June 29, 1905, in the middle of a season, the scene where Ray time-travels to see him is in 1955, and he dies in 1965. In the movie, it's 1988, Ray specifically says he was born in 1952 (making him 17 when the 1960s ended and thus unlikely to have been involved in major events or even to have been at Woodstock), Graham's one appearance is in the last game of the 1922 season, he dies in 1972, and Ray's unwitting time-warp brings him to shortly before Dr. Graham dies.

* There's a character and a storyline in the book that didn't make it into the movie. Ray and Annie had bought the farm from Eddie Scissons, an old eccentric who had told the locals that he was the oldest living former Chicago Cub. He gets exposed as a fraud, something Ray had already suspected due to a mistake Scissons had made: He claimed to have played with Cub icons Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers and Frank Chance at Wrigley Field, which didn't open until after they had all left the Cubs (although Tinker had played there for the Chicago Whales and returned to the Cubs when they moved in). After his exposure as a fraud, Scissons sees his younger self walk out of the cornfield in a 1908 Cubs uniform and take the mound, but, as penance, gets clobbered, and leaves without recording an out. He dies the next day, and is buried in the outfield, and Ray is now sure that if he looks in The Baseball Encyclopedia where Scissons' name would be, it will be there.

My favorite part of the book concerns the trip back from Chisholm to the farm in Iowa. In a scene that does not appear in the film, Ray, Salinger, and young Archie Graham stop off at Metropolitan Stadium outside Minneapolis to watch the Minnesota Twins play the Yankees. Ray takes a particular interest in the Yankees' banged-up, grumpy but heroic catcher, Thurman Munson, and notes (after the fact) that Munson would die in a plane crash only a few weeks later. (This definitively dates the story: The Yankees visiting the Twins in June 12, 13 and 14, 1979. The Yankees won the opener of the series 4-1, and the Twins took the next 2, 8-7 and 4-2.)

He also mentions going back the next day, and watching the groundskeepers water the field, taking notes on how to do it for his own field back on his farm, and pointing out that, by the time the book was done, the Twins had moved out of The Met and into the downtown Metrodome, which had artificial turf, and didn't need any watering.


Shoeless Joe was a bestseller and made Kinsella a literary star, and Field of Dreams made him a legend. He wrote a 2nd baseball novel, The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, about an Iowa minor league team playing the 1908 World Champion Cubs in what turns out to be a days-long game that simply doesn't want to end. It was excerpted in Sports Illustrated at its publication in 1986.

He had also invoked the Cubs in a 1984 story, The Last Pennant Before Armageddon, in which it looks like the Cubs might finally win the National League Pennant for the 1st time since 1945, just as America and the Soviet Union might actually be heading for a nuclear exchange, thus preventing the Pennant -- or, if the Pennant does happen first, preventing anyone from enjoying it for very long. It was very fortuitous: This turned out to be the same year President Ronald Reagan, himself a former broadcaster for the Cubs in Iowa (doing games by telegraph over Des Moines radio station WHO), made a joke about bombing Russia that mistakenly went out during preparations for his weekly radio address; and the Cubs reached the postseason for the 1st time since the 1945 World Series, and came within 1 game of that elusive Pennant, but blew it. The story was adapted for a stage play in 1990.

In 1993, he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada; he would later receive the Order of British Columbia. In 1996, his story Lieberman in Love was turned into a short film that won the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film. Somehow, the film had been made without him even knowing about it, until he watched the Oscar telecast and heard it announced. He was not mentioned in the film's credits. Nor did Christine Lahti, the actress who directed it, mention him in her acceptance speech. Variety, the show-business newspaper, took out a full-page ad apologizing to him, and that seemed to settle things.

In 1997, Kinsella was hit by a car. His impact injuries were minor, but he suffered another injury when his head hit he ground. He would later say he lost his senses of smell and taste, and his ability to concentrate. He also developed diabetes. He became embittered about the publishing industry, bemoaning the shrinking audience for academic fiction.

Shortly after his accident, the last novel he had written before it was released: Magic Time, which followed a group of activists from the early 1960s to the late 1970s. I read it. It showed so much promise. It went someplace I didn't want it to go. Timothy Leary, the doctor who became the high priest of LSD, was still alive when Kinsella wrote it, but had died before it came out. Early in he book, Kinsella wrote of the group's first "acid trip," and had one of them think, "Timothy Leary looked like an angel." Toward the end, one of the characters has an "acid flashback," and thinks, "Timothy Leary looked like the Devil."

By the end of the 2000s, he had settled in Yale, British Columbia, a small rural town well inland from the big city of Vancouver and the Provincial capital of Victoria. In a way, he was emulating Salinger, who died in 2010. By that point, Kinsella had begun to write again. In 2011, another baseball novel was published, Butterfly Winter.

His diabates would soon leave him debilitated. On June 18 of this year, physician-assisted suicide was legalized in Canada. Three months later, on September 18, 2016, in Hope, British Columbia, W.P. Kinsella and his doctor took advantage of this law. The author was 81 years old. He was survived by his 4th wife, Barbara; 2 daughters, Erin Kinsella and Shannon Kinsella; 3 stepchildren, Scarlet Gaffney, Aaron Gaffney and Lyn Calendar; and 4 grandchildren.

"I just think magically," he told the Vancouver Sun in 2011. "I always have."

Anyone who reads Shoeless Joe or watches Field of Dreams would have to agree with that.

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