Just as there is comfort food, there is comfort reading. And for me, there is no better comfort reading than W.P. Kinsella’s classic baseball fantasy, Shoeless Joe. I re-read this one every few years to remind myself why I fell in love with the game in the first place – and why that romance has lasted for over 50 years now. What is not to like about a novel about baseball, family and second chances? Keep in mind that this is not Field of Dreams, the great Kevin Costner movie based on Kinsella’s novel. Shoeless Joe is better.
Ray Kinsella, an accidental farmer, lives with his wife and little girl on a rented Iowa farm. Ray is still learning on the job, and things are not going well. But despite the family’s financial problems, Ray is willing to plow up a substantial portion of his cornfield when he hears what seems to be the voice of a baseball announcer saying to him, “If you build it, he will come.” Weird as that is, Ray instinctively knows that he is Shoeless Joe Jackson, one of the disgraced Chicago White Sox players accused of throwing the 1919 World Series (and his father’s favorite baseball player). So build it, he does.
Building the stadium, though, is just the beginning of Ray’s quest, a quest that will lead him on a cross-country road trip to the hideaway home of reclusive author J.D. Salinger. Ray knows that he needs to bring Salinger back to his little Iowa ballpark, but he does not know why – and Salinger is having none of it, so Ray kidnaps him. On the way back to Iowa, Ray stops in Boston to deliver on the promise he made to Salinger to bring him to a game at Fenway Park if he would just get in the car. Late in the game, Ray’s personal announcer makes another appearance to give Ray and Salinger a hint about what they need to do next.
Shoeless Joe is, especially for hardcore baseball fans, a thing of beauty. It is primarily a novel about the beauty of second chances. Shoeless Joe Jackson and the Black Sox get to play baseball again; Ray reconciles with the twin brother he lost track of years earlier; old men who barely missed out on the opportunity to play major league baseball get a chance to see their younger selves compete with and against ghost players from the past; Ray gets to see his father as a young man. And Ray gets a second chance to save his farm from his scheming brother-in-law.
This is a book about following one’s dreams, taking chances, and joyously living the only shot at life any of us will ever be blessed to have. When I need to remind myself of these principles, I reach for Shoeless Joe. It has done the trick for three decades – and I hope there are still several more re-reads in my future.
Rated at: 5.0