Monday, January 26, 2015

The Essential W.P. Kinsella

I will be forever grateful to W.P. Kinsella even if he never publishes another word because he is responsible for one of my favorite books of all time, Shoeless Joe.  That novel, of course, subsequently morphed into what is one of my favorite movies: Field of Dreams.  And now, thanks to the remarkable new collection of Kinsella's short stories (published in celebration of the author's approaching eightieth birthday), The Essential W.P. Kinsella, I have finally read the short story that started it all, "Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa." 

In addition to being a very fine novelist, W.P. Kinsella is a prolific short story writer with something like two hundred stories to his credit.  In the U.S., he is probably best known for his baseball stories, but in Canada he is perhaps better known for his First Nation stories set on the Hobbema Indian Reservation.  The reservation stories feature a continuing cast of diverse characters through which Kinsella takes satirical pokes at life on the reservation, the Canadian government, and the general attitude of the white population toward Canada's native population.  Those stories, funny as they usually are, often leave the reader pondering a serious point or two about life.

But Kinsella is also the author of what, for lack of a better term, I will call standalone stories, stories that have nothing to do with baseball or with Indians.  It is one of these standalones, in fact, that is my favorite of the entire collection, a story titled "The Last Surviving Member of the Japanese Victory Society."  It tells of a divorced man who falls in love with the Japanese woman who owns the plant and garden nursery he frequents.  It is the story of two people who are determined to be together despite a major obstacle to their relationship: the Japanese woman's mother, who is determined to have nothing to do with "the devil" who has come to take her daughter from her.  “The Last Surviving Member of the Japanese Victory Society” has such a feel of honesty and frankness about it that I almost immediately began to suspect that it is a very personal one to its author - a suspicion, in fact, confirmed by the touching dedication that follows the story's final words.  Simply put, this is a beautiful story.

W.P. Kinsella
The author himself had a hand in choosing stories for The Essential W.P. Kinsella, and fans of his baseball stories and First Nation stories will be pleased with the number of each type chosen for inclusion.  The baseball stories may magically touch on tragic figures such as Roberto Clemente and Thurman Munson, but the tales spend just as much time in the low minors with players who are unlikely ever even to sniff life in Triple A ball, much less the majors.  The Indian stories portray the unexpected humor of life on the reservation - humor that is often more of the "sometimes you have to laugh so you don't cry" variety, than not.  There are likely to be surprises for everyone in The Essential W.P. Kinsella.  But those who know Kinsella's work only from his baseball stories are going to get the biggest and best surprise of all. 

Happy Birthday, Mr. Kinsella...and thank you.

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