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Writing the Body in Motion: A Critical Anthology on Canadian Sport Literature



Edited by


Athabasca University Press logo



Angie Abdou

1 W. P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe: The Fairy Tale, the Hero’s Quest, and the Magic Realism of Baseball

Fred Mason

2 The Myth of Hockey and Identity in Paul Quarrington’s King Leary

Cara Hedley

3 Hockey, Humour, and Play in Wayne Johnston’s The Divine Ryans

Jason Blake

4 The Poetry of Hockey in Richard Harrison’s Hero of the Play

Paul Martin

5 Glaciers, Embodiment, and the Sublime: An Ecocritical Approach to Thomas Wharton’s Icefields

Cory Willard

6 Hockey, Zen, and the Art of Bill Gaston’s The Good Body

Jamie Dopp

7 The Darkening Path: The Hero-Athlete Reconsidered in Angie Abdou’s The Bone Cage

Gyllian Phillips

8 “Open the door to the roaring darkness”: The Enigma of Terry Sawchuk in Randall Maggs’s Night Work: The Sawchuk Poems

Paul Martin

9 From Tank to Deep Water: Myth and History in Samantha Warwick’s Sage Island

Jamie Dopp

10 Identity and the Athlete: Alexander MacLeod’s “Miracle Mile”

Laura K. Davis

11 Decolonizing the Hockey Novel: Ambivalence and Apotheosis in Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse

Sam McKegney and Trevor J. Phillips



Angie Abdou


Over the past decade, sport literature courses have sprung up at colleges and universities across the continent, in both English and kinesiology departments. As the author of a sport novel, The Bone Cage (2007), I have been invited to speak to students in Newfoundland, Ontario, Manitoba, Alberta, and British Columbia, as well as in Maine, Massachusetts, West Virginia, Colorado, Texas, and Kansas. Because I am enthusiastic about sport literature, professors in the discipline frequently contact me with questions. Mostly, they want me to recommend secondary sources. They want strong academic essays to assign to their students, as examples of the critical analysis of sport literature. Unfortunately, there are still relatively few such essays available.

In Canada, an exciting body of critical writing specifically about hockey has emerged, beginning with Richard Gruneau and David Whitson’s Hockey Night in Canada: Sport, Identities and Cultural Politics (1993). Since Gruneau and Whitson’s groundbreaking study, several collections of essays have appeared, including Whitson and Gruneau’s follow-up work, Artificial Ice: Hockey, Culture, and Commerce (2006); Canada’s Game: Hockey and Identity, edited by Andrew Holman (2009); and Now Is the Winter: Thinking About Hockey, edited by Jamie Dopp and Richard Harrison (2009). In addition, two full-length studies—Jason Blake’s Canadian Hockey Literature (2010) and Michael J. Buma’s Refereeing Identity: The Cultural Work of Canadian Hockey Novels (2012)—have offered critical surveys of hockey fiction in Canada. But these scholars have, for the most part, adopted an interdisciplinary approach, rather than offering close readings of the hockey novels and poems that tend to be taught in sport literature courses.

Perhaps the critical and commercial popularity of certain hockey novels—classics like Roy MacGregor’s The Last Season (1983), Paul Quarrington’s King Leary (1987), and Bill Gaston’s The Good Body (2000)—has helped to overcome some of the historical prejudice in the academy against the study of sports and, by extension, against literature about sports. At the same time, works of literature about sports other than hockey have largely been ignored. The present collection aims to redress this imbalance, by including considerations of some of the best recent literature in Canada about other sports. In preparing the collection, we intended to maintain an even balance between hockey and “not-hockey” literature, but continually found our hockey list outweighing all other sports combined. The same thing happens each time I teach a sport lit course: if I don’t stay vigilant, I easily end up teaching a hockey lit course. This phenomenon is easy to explain: there is an abundance of very good Canadian literature about hockey—which is, after all, an iconic sport in this country, intricately entwined with efforts to summon a pan-Canadian sense of identity. To make room for non-hockey sport literature, we have thus left out some classic Canadian hockey literature: Roch Carrier’s The Hockey Sweater (1979), Jamie Fitzpatrick’s You Could Believe in Nothing (2011), Steven Galloway’s Finnie Walsh (2000), Mark Anthony Jarman’s Salvage King, Ya! (1997), and Cara Hedley’s Twenty Miles (2007).

The growing interest in hockey for Canadian writers and scholars also led to a growth in hockey conferences, the first of which was hosted by Colin Howell at St. Mary’s University, in Halifax, in October 2001. According to the proceedings, the conference “Putting It on Ice: Hockey in Historical and Contemporary Perspective” was “meant to be the first in a series of conferences on hockey and its historical and social significance” (Howell 2002, vol.1). This conference helped to jump-start an increase in scholarly analysis of hockey and set the pattern for future conferences, which have brought together scholars, journalists, members of community hockey organizations, athletes, and writers and poets from across North America and Europe. In 2002, Howell organized a follow-up conference on women’s hockey, and two years later, Andrew Holman, a professor of Canadian studies at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts, organized a conference called “Canada’s Game: Hockey and Identity.” Since then, hockey conferences have been held every two or three years. The hockey essays in Writing the Body in Motion offer explanations for this wealth of hockey literature and the growing scholarly interest in it, while also examining the association between hockey and Canadian identity.

We hope the interest in hockey literature will gradually extend to other types of sport literature. Sport lit courses allow students the opportunity to critique sport culture and to analyze the role of athletics in today’s society. Most of us, at some point in our lives, participate in sport, and many of us also interact with sport as consumers by attending or watching sporting events or following sports in the media. Sport literature courses give us a chance to think critically about that consumption. We intend this collection to complement those courses, both for professors as lecture material and for students as models of literary criticism and as research sources. The essays offer a variety of ways to read, teach, and write about sport literature. Organized chronologically by source text, from Shoeless Joe (1982) to Indian Horse (2012), the essays in this collection focus specifically on contemporary Canadian sport literature.

The lessons of these literary works—and the essays about them—extend beyond the sporting arena. According to the course website of Don Morrow, who taught one of Canada’s first sport lit courses at the University of Western Ontario, sport literature is never just about sport; rather, it explores the human condition using sport as the dominant metaphor. Similarly, Priscila Uppal, perhaps the most well-known Canadian scholar and writer to focus her attention on this topic, explains that the best sport literature functions as “metaphor, paradigm, a way to experience some of the harsher realities of the world, a place to escape to, an arena from which endless lessons can be learned, passed on, learned again” (2009, xiv). Many of the essays in this collection, therefore, examine the various ways in which sport functions metaphorically. Our authors also consider various recurring themes of sport literature, including how sport relates to the body, violence, gender, society, sexuality, heroism, the father/son relationship, memory, the environment, redemption, mortality, religion, quest, and place.

Two theorists feature prominently in the following essays: Joseph Campbell and Michael Oriard. Because writers often represent sport stories as a quest for victory, with the athlete as mythic hero, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero of a Thousand Faces (first published in 1949) works well as a contextual and theoretical framework. Campbell proposes the “monomyth” of the hero’s journey, which involves a departure from home, overcoming obstacles, triumph, and a return to community with new knowledge (see Campbell 2008). Scholars in this collection study how authors choose to digress from this structure and how the victory that the athletes achieve (self-knowledge) often differs from the one they sought (gold medal). Several of the essays draw on Campbell’s notions of rebirth to analyze how these athletes return home with new knowledge and must learn to reintegrate into their (sport) society, as well as how the reborn athletes might change that society on their return. Michael Oriard also offers great insight into myths of the athlete-hero, particularly in his book Dreaming of Heroes: American Sport Fiction (1982). Oriard builds upon the work of Campbell and applies Campbell’s theories specifically to sport, making Oriard’s work especially relevant to teachers and students of sport literature. A professional football player turned academic, Oriard has made important contributions to the field and is widely recognized as one of the foremost cultural historians of American football. His ideas, though, can be extended beyond football. In the following essays, scholars apply his theories to hockey, swimming, wrestling, and baseball. Though published in 1982, Dreaming of Heroes is still relevant and remains critical reading for any student of sport literature.

In the discussion of Alexander MacLeod’s “Miracle Mile,” Laura Davis asserts that MacLeod’s story is not your typical sport literature. “Miracle Mile,” Davis argues, is “far from a narrative about victory.” The same can be said of all the works examined in this collection. For example, Cara Hedley’s analysis of King Leary reveals that the protagonist was only ever a king in his own mind and that Quarrington’s novel works to deconstruct the very notion of sport-hero. Through that deconstruction, Hedley—via Quarrington—also questions the role of hockey in the construction of our nation’s identity. Sport lit courses tend to focus on stories that work against the traditional sport-hero narrative. We all know the typical narrative arc from classic sport movies like Rocky, Hoosiers, The Mighty Ducks, and countless others. The movie starts with an underdog who decides to go for it. He (yes, it is almost always a he) trains and trains and trains. He experiences some victory, and the audience becomes deeply invested in his success. But then he experiences an obstacle—maybe he is injured; maybe his dad dies; maybe his girlfriend dumps him. He appears to give up, to quit. Cue the dark, moody music. Zoom in on the hero, sitting on the kitchen floor, the hood of his sweatshirt pulled low over his forehead, his face in shadow. But don’t despair! Along comes the coach to give him a rallying pep talk—or a well-placed kick in the butt, followed by an almost affectionate pat on the shoulder, depending on the characterization of the coach—and our hero “digs deep.” He decides to “give it all he’s got!”—to “go for it!” Of course, sport rewards his efforts. He wins, and we end with our hero on the podium, arms raised high.

Don’t get me wrong. I am a sucker for these movies. I cry every single time. Even in Men with Brooms (2002), a comedy about a group of beer-guzzling curlers, when they went for it, I cried. Right at that point when the coach finishes his rallying pep talk, with the hero nodding intently, his gaze fierce, my husband always turns to me: “Oh, Ang! He’s going to go for it!” My husband mocks me—he laughs at my guaranteed overly emotional reaction to the hero’s predictable move towards victory—but let it be known that we both have tears rolling down our cheeks. He and I met on a varsity swim team. We went for it, and we have the arthritic shoulders as proof. Neither of our careers ended on the podium. We both get a little weepy at these perfect sport stories. I suppose we like the comforting predictability, as well as the tidy way in which effort and “playing with heart” are always rewarded. The movies offer a kind of simplistic reassurance: by winning in the end, the hero (and the audience) can make sense of everything that has come before—the suffering, the injustice, the confusion, the sacrifice. A victory makes it all right.

Despite the emotional satisfaction that I take in these predictable stories, I have always known that they have very little connection to the truth of athletic lives. I wrote my swimming-wrestling novel, The Bone Cage (2007), partly as a response to the discrepancy I saw between sport movies and sport lives. I wanted to write a sport novel that did not end on the podium. I wanted to ask if the Olympic quest might be a misguided quest. Gyllian Phillips takes up that issue in her essay on The Bone Cage, explicating the book’s literary allusions and drawing parallels with the quest-gone-wrong in Robert Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.” In fact, the quest motif appears in many of the essays in this book. Fred Mason, for example, employs the work of Joseph Campbell in his discussion of quest in Shoeless Joe, and Jamie Dopp points out that the marathon swimmer in Samantha Warwick’s Sage Island might, in the end, have undertaken a very different quest than the one she intended. We find a comparison between hockey and Zen Buddhism in Bill Gaston’s The Good Body, where engagement in sport helps the protagonist on his journey towards a kind of enlightenment. In each case, sport is a microcosm of our wider society, and the problematization of a certain kind of sport-quest can become a problematization of all quests, an evaluation of all strategies to ascribe meaning and shape to life.

Not only do the texts we have chosen for this volume disrupt the traditional underdog-to-podium sport narrative, but they also tend to undermine the very notion of athletic success. Though the characters often come to sport looking for redemption, the redemption they find has little to do with gold medals. In Samantha Warwick’s marathon swimming novel Sage Island, when Savanna Mason arrives at the Wrigley Ocean Marathon, she thinks: “I wonder if everyone who came here for this race feels like a loser. I wonder if this whole event is fueled by failures wanting to redeem themselves” (Warwick 2008, 52). Initially, Savanna feel like a “loser” who needs to prove herself with this race. In the conclusion, though, this personal affirmation does not take the form readers might expect. Instead, Sage Island, like much of the literature discussed in this collection, redefines the very concepts of “winner” and “loser” and the notions of “success” and “failure.”

Again, this evaluation of the notion of success can be applied beyond sport. In the introduction to her sport literature anthology, Priscila Uppal compares the work of a writer to that of an athlete, claiming that both artists and athletes “pursue excellence through discipline and rigour, both sacrifice other pleasures in this pursuit, and both are actively engaged in . . . ‘pain management’ (the ability to turn pain into a creative, dynamic force)” (2009, xi–xii). Uppal adds that “truly great practitioners in both arenas are possessed with the curious ability to actively change the rules the game are played by” because they are “originals rather than followers” (xii). Similarly, both Shoeless Joe and Sage Island compare novel writing and athletic competition. In Shoeless Joe, Kinsella compares the writing vocation (manifested in J. D. Salinger) to life as a professional baseball player. In Sage Island, Savanna’s brother dreams of publishing a novel, and his creative pursuit is compared to Savanna’s athletic pursuits. Savanna’s coach (Higgins) feels badly for the parents of these two individuals (the novelist and the athlete) with their non-mainstream dreams. He says, “I was just thinking of your parents, such practical creatures, and both kids turn out dreamers, desperadoes” (Warwick 2008, 81). Here, Warwick portrays sport (like novel-writing) as a kind of rebellion, a rejection of mainstream values and scripts. Savanna’s father disapproves of her involvement in swimming, claiming, “Swimming is not a vocation, Savanna, it’s a diversion” (96). Savanna, nonetheless, pursues her swimming goals and, because the narrative is in the first person, readers tend to identify with her and wish her success in her endeavours rather than hope that she will give up on her athletic dreams and fulfill her adult responsibilities in her parents’ bakery. In this way, the novel presents swimming, and athletics in general, as a way of rejecting society’s predetermined script—grow up, finish school, get a job, start a family. Instead, the novel favourably represents the alternative of following individual dreams that may not always seem logical or practical, dreams that individuals might not always be able to justify easily to their parents. Readers are asked to consider whether these athletes, these “dreamers and desperadoes,” truly escape from adult responsibilities and obligations: Do they simply delay their inevitable entry into mainstream society? Or do they create new ways of being and thereby redefine what constitutes “success”? Again, sport functions as a vehicle through which to question and critique wider societal values and ways of being in the world.

Perhaps Warwick’s devotion to swimming as a lifestyle comes from her own participation in the sport. She still swims competitively and coaches the sport. The same is true of many authors under consideration in this collection. Richard Wagamese played hockey. Randall Maggs played goalie and watched his brother compete in the NHL. Alexander MacLeod ran at an elite level. When I set out to write The Bone Cage, I considered using a sport other than swimming, solely because I did not want readers to make autobiographical assumptions based on my own history in the sport. However, I soon realized that no amount of book research could replace those decades in the pool. No matter how much I read about other sports or interviewed other athletes, I would never obtain the visceral knowledge that I have of swimming, a sport I know in my very body. The other athlete-writers represented in this collection bring the same bodily expertise to their exploration of sport, and I invite student-athletes to do the same in their writing.

Because the sport literature analyzed in this collection engages not only in representation of sport for its own sake but also in a rigorous, philosophical examination of everyday life and values, the works lend themselves to various political and theoretical approaches. Trevor Phillips and Sam McKegney, for example, provide an important postcolonial analysis of Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse, with its portrayal of the brutal residential school system and the implication of hockey in the violence and abuse. If hockey symbolizes Canada better than the flag, then where is the place for Indigenous peoples and what is the relationship between hockey and the First Nations? McKegney and Phillips explore this question in their analysis of Wagamese’s Indian Horse.

Turning the political gaze to the environment, Cory Willard offers a consideration of Thomas Wharton’s Icefields and explores how we can use this mountaineering novel to think about conservation and climate change. His analysis of the novel urges political activism to protect our planet. Rather than being an escape from politics and from pressing contemporary issues, sport lit can offer an arena for vigorous political engagement and activism. To use the words of Jason Blake in his exploration of play in Wayne Johnston’s The Divine Ryans, hockey and hockey literature “are more than escapist flight from real life” and can, instead, be a place where players (and readers) make sense of their world.

The texts chosen for this collection work to deconstruct the mind/body dichotomy. Each of our essayists makes clear the many ways in which athletic literature can be of great intellectual interest. Of course, there are many more works of fiction we could have included, like Canada’s postmodern hockey novel Salvage Kings, Ya! (1997) by Mark Anthony Jarman, or the wheelchair basketball novel Post (2007), by Arley McNeney, or the mountaineering novel Every Lost Country (2010), by Steven Heighton, or the swimming novel Flip Turn (2012), by Paula Eisenstein. In fact, sport also plays a major role in many key canonical Canadian literature texts. Think, for example, of the swimmers in Eden Robinson’s Monkey Beach (2000), Ethel Wilson’s Swamp Angel (1954), and Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing (1972). This collection focuses on the texts currently taught most often in sport literature courses, and we hope our book will move the conversation forward.


Howell, Colin D. 2002. “Hockey’s Many Meanings and Contested Identities.” Introduction to Putting It on Ice: Hockey and Cultural Identities, vol. 1 of Putting It on Ice, edited by Colin D. Howell, v–vii. Halifax: Gorsebrook Research Institute, Saint Mary’s University.

Uppal, Priscila, ed. 2009. The Exile Book of Canadian Sport Stories. Toronto: Exile Editions.

Warwick, Samantha. 2008. Sage Island. Victoria: Brindle and Glass.


Fred Mason

W. P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe
The Fairy Tale, the Hero’s Quest, and the Magic Realism of Baseball

Baseball is probably the sport most written about by fiction writers; indeed, as David McGimpsey notes, “baseball has in fact gained a highbrow, literary reputation that no other American sport, and very few objects of American culture, enjoy” (2000, 2). McGimpsey (2000, 2) notes that the genre of baseball literature has many consistent tropes: baseball is a natural, God-given sport; it allows people to be judged on quantifiable merit; it is connected to the simplicity of childhood; it brings fathers and sons together. More cynical tropes can also be found: baseball can be corrupted by its fixed monopoly at the professional level, and its “purity” is always under threat, with a nostalgic nod to “how it used to be.” W. P. Kinsella’s novels and short stories have contributed heavily to the genre of baseball fiction, beginning with Shoeless Joe in 1982 (Steele 2011, 17), and his work almost always expresses some of these tropes.

Kinsella’s fiction, especially the novel Shoeless Joe, has received much attention from literary scholars. Historian Dan Nathan suggests that “in terms of the amount of critical attention it has received, Shoeless Joe’s only rival as far as baseball fiction goes is Bernard Malamud’s [1952 novel] The Natural” (2003, 154). Among other topics, scholars have focused on Kinsella’s writing style (Boe 1983; Easton 1999; Fischer 2000), on Shoeless Joe’s connection to other literature about baseball’s pastoral roots (Carino 1994; Garman 1994; Altherr 1990), on Kinsella’s complex portrayal of father-son relationships (Hollander 1999; Mesher 1992; Morrow 2002; Pellow 1991), and on how the novel’s nostalgia for baseball’s past is overly conservative and excludes women and people of colour (Garman 1994; McGimpsey 2000, Vanderwerken 1998). However, what sets Kinsella’s work apart from that of other baseball writers, is his heavy use of the fantastical, such as ghostly ballplayers, and his tendency to slip easily between different spaces and different times on rural ball fields. Drawing on analyses of other academic writers, this essay focuses on how Shoeless Joe employs mythical elements of the fairy tale and quest story, as well as metafictional techniques (blending elements of the real world into the fictional narrative), to portray baseball as a spiritual phenomenon.


In a number of interviews, W. P. Kinsella indicated that he would be happy to be described as a “baseball writer,” even though he insisted that “the best sports literature isn’t really about sports. I, for instance, write love stories that have baseball as a background” (quoted in Horvath and Palmer 1987, 186). In addition to Shoeless Joe, Kinsella wrote five short story collections related to baseball (1980, 1984, 1988, 1993, 2000) and five baseball novels (1986, 1991, 1996, 1998, 2011). What became the novel Shoeless Joe started out as the short story “Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa,” the title story of his first short story collection. Kinsella wrote the story while at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in 1978, intending to express his love for the land around him. The story became the first chapter of the novel. While he had had previous success as a short story writer, the novel established Kinsella’s career and allowed him to take up writing as a full-time profession.

Although Kinsella wrote frequently about baseball, it appears he had little involvement with the sport itself. Like the novel’s main character, Ray Kinsella, the writer grew up with his father telling him stories about baseball (Murray 1987, 39). However, the real Kinsella never played as a child and only became a fan as an adult (Horvath and Palmer 1987, 184). As his relationship with the sport developed, Kinsella came to see baseball as a place for myth and dreams. As he told Don Murray (1987, 38), baseball, unlike other sports, is not limited by time or space. A tied baseball game could theoretically go on forever: one of Kinsella’s novels, The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, features a ball game that goes on for forty days and forty nights. Kinsella also noted that “on the true baseball field, the foul lines diverge forever, the field eventually encompassing a goodly portion of the world, and there is theoretically no distance that a great hitter couldn’t hit the ball or a great fielder run to retrieve it. . . . This openness makes for larger than life characters, for mythology” (quoted in Horvath and Palmer 1987, 188). Starting with Shoeless Joe, Kinsella, probably more than any other fiction writer to date, turned to baseball for mythic possibilities.


A marker of much of Kinsella’s writing, particularly in Shoeless Joe, is his use of magic realism, a literary technique that incorporates surreal or fantastic elements into an otherwise realistic, even mundane world (Hamblin 1992, 3). Shoeless Joe, mostly set on a small, simple family farm in Iowa, includes time travel, voices “from beyond,” and deceased ballplayers who emerge from a cornfield to display their skills again. The storyline of the novel is largely driven by commands given by disembodied voices. Iowa farmer Ray Kinsella hears a voice that says “If you build it, he will come” (Kinsella 1982, 3). Ray somehow innately knows that the “he” referred to his father’s hero, Shoeless Joe Jackson, one of eight Chicago Black Sox players banned from baseball for fixing the 1919 World Series. “It” is a ball field. Despite financial difficulties and ridicule from his neighbours, Ray plows under part of his cornfield to build a ballpark. After three years, he has only managed to create a small section of left field, but it is enough to get Shoeless Joe Jackson to appear. Over time, more players from the Black Sox appear as Ray completes more of the field. The voice also tells Ray, “Ease his pain,” which he interprets, with complete certainty, to mean that he should travel across the country, retrieve reclusive author J. D. Salinger, and take him to a major league ball game (Kinsella, 1982, 27-28). Salinger and Ray both see a vision on the scoreboard, and both hear a voice that sends them on a trip back across the country to investigate the life of Archie Graham, who played one inning in the majors. While Salinger initially has doubts, Ray never does, and the voice, as if from on high, always ends up sending those who hear it to do the things they need to do. While the voice is seemingly omniscient and otherworldly, the actions it calls people to do occur in very simple, everyday places, like a cornfield in Iowa, the outfield stands of Fenway Park, and a small town in northern Minnesota.

Chisholm, Minnesota is the site of a major plot turn that links to the fantastical through a form of time travel. While Ray and Salinger are in town, it seems that their investigations into Graham revive the town’s memory of him. While out for a midnight stroll, Ray encounters the elderly Doctor Graham, who is long deceased. Ray realizes that he has experienced some sort of time slippage:

As we walk, I note subtle differences in the buildings and sidewalks. Some of the newer houses on Second Street appear to have been replaced by older ones. There are business signs along Lake Street that weren’t there yesterday. Can it be that I am the one who has crossed some magical line between fantasy and reality? That it is Doc who is on solid turf, and I have entered into the past as effortlessly as chasing a butterfly across a meadow? (118)

They go to Graham’s office for coffee and conversation, and Graham admits that his one wish in life was to bat in the major leagues. Ray returns to his hotel room, thereby travelling forward in time to his own present. On their way out of town, Ray and Salinger pick up a hitchhiker, a young Archie Graham with bat and glove, headed out west to find a ball club. Ray tells him of his field in Iowa, and Archie agrees to go with them. When the ghost players appear after Ray and his companions get back to the farm, Graham is told that he has a contract with them, and he joins the players on the field. The ghostly Black Sox, like Graham, have a strong timeless quality: they appear in their athletic prime, despite the decades that have passed.

Rebirth and revival of characters are standard features in many fantasy tales, as well as in the origin myths of many of the world’s religions. In the novel Shoeless Joe, rebirth and transformation are central to everything. We see the rebirth of players, initially Shoeless Joe Jackson and the other Black Sox, and later others, including Ray’s father, who was a minor league catcher. However, their presence is largely limited, in space and time, to Ray’s field and to game time. One exception is Archie Graham whom Ray and Salinger meet in the world beyond the farm. Once Graham starts playing at Ray’s field, though, he transfers from one “realm” to another and exists only as a young player who comes and goes—that is, until he makes the choice to once again become Doc Graham in order to save the life of Ray’s daughter, Karin, when she is choking. Graham transmogrifies, ultimately choosing self-sacrifice in being unable to return to the field as a player, much like a mythical hero. Another central character who experiences miraculous transformation is Eddie Scissons, the die-hard Cubs fan who claims to be “the oldest living Cub.” One night at Ray’s ballpark, the usually wispy opponents are surprisingly visible as the Chicago Cubs from the 1910s. Scissons sees a young version of himself called in as a relief pitcher, with disastrous results. His younger self blows a lead and is pulled from the game. After some initial distress over this episode, Eddie comes to see it as a reaffirmation of his obsession with baseball as a fan; he delivers a speech to the players about baseball as a form of religion and truth for the world. Later in the novel, Scissons dies and we learn he changed his will to request burial in Ray’s field. His symbolic rebirth, though a disaster, enables a rebirth of his belief in baseball.

Mythical stories with fantastical dimensions and great heroes serve to impart life lessons and to create bonds and a sense of community (Schwartz 1987, 137–38). Sporting practices in our modern world often take on mythic dimensions, since sport is one of the few cultural practices that can regularly offer us heroes. In his baseball writing, W. P. Kinsella consistently tapped into the mythical potential he saw in the game of baseball. Shoeless Joe has many similarities to folk and fairy tales, and it contains a number of elements of the fantasy genre. In a classic essay originally written for presentation in 1939, J. R. R. Tolkien suggests that certain elements bring us into the “realm of the fairy-story,” a realm that includes the “real” by focusing on humans and what they do in the fairy realm but allows for the fantastical, like fairies, elves, dwarfs, and dragons—or in Shoeless Joe, reborn players and time slippage (Tolkien 1964, 15-16). Crucially, in such stories, magic must be taken seriously: it must not be satirical or comic; it must be presented as true, as part of the story frame itself; and it typically helps with human desires (Tolkien 1964, 17–19).

The plot of Shoeless Joe is propelled by magic: several times in the novel, Ray refers to the idea of feeling “the magic” growing before crucial events happen (Kinsella, 1982, 10; 115; 187; 202). But for others to participate in the magic, to see the ghostly players and the ballpark itself, they must believe in the magical possibilities of baseball. While Ray’s immediate family members, Salinger, and Scissons experience the ballpark in its full dimension—with announcers, crowds, sights and sounds—others, such as Annie’s brother Mark and Ray’s brother Richard, initially see only the onlookers, the “real” people, sitting in a ramshackle bleacher on a ballpark surrounded by corn. Richard Schwartz argues that because some characters can see the ballplayers and others cannot, readers of Shoeless Joe have to be willing to accept that the phantoms are on the same level of reality in the narrative as the other characters, or the story falls apart. He suggests that “by leaving open the question of the phantoms’ reality, Kinsella extends the opportunity for experiencing faith to the readers themselves,” requiring that readers take “a leap of faith” (1987, 145).

Writing on the importance of belief in relation to the genre of fantasy and fairy tales, Tolkien noted:

What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful “sub-creator.” He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is “true”: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief rises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. (Tolkien 1964, 36)

Tolkien put the onus for creating belief on the author, the “sub-creator” of the story. Other scholars, such as Neil Randall (1987) and Donald Morse (1998) argue that fictional works with fantastical elements like Shoeless Joe make demands upon readers, demands for a willing suspension of disbelief, for cooperation in sustaining belief (Morse 1998, 352). Since readers are required to accept such things as a magical ballpark in the cornfields of Iowa on the same level as the more realistic events in the novel, they must, in some sense, become co-creators of the narrative (Randall 1987,175). Belief is multi-layered in Shoeless Joe. The novel criticizes belief in organized religion as being self-serving, and insists that characters must believe in baseball and its possibilities to become full participants at Ray’s field. Similarly, the novel demands that readers suspend disbelief in order to enter the story fully. I might suggest that some critics, such as Bruce Brooks (1983, 22–24), or other readers who do not like the novel, may be unable or unwilling to maintain the required suspension of disbelief when faced with such fantastical elements in what is ostensibly a baseball novel.


To complicate the question of what is believable in his writing, W. P. Kinsella often enters into metafiction, where fact and fiction are blended together so that the reader has difficulty knowing where one ends and the other begins (Morse 2004, 309). Shoeless Joe includes a number of real-world people as characters (Salinger, Graham, and Jackson himself) but fictionalizes them in the narrative and places them in all sorts of fantastic situations. Kinsella also incorporates “facts” that turn out not to be true at all. The blending and blurring of fact and fiction so that they are difficult to distinguish is a key feature of the novel.

The most obvious real-world person in the book is the title character, Shoeless Joe Jackson. The Black Sox scandal of 1919, the fixing of the World Series, Joe Jackson’s implication in the events, and the subsequent banning of the eight players for life are all historical facts. However, once Joe Jackson steps out of history and onto Ray’s ball field, he becomes a fictional character. Kinsella’s version of Jackson’s past is almost entirely based on the stories told by Ray’s father, which sympathetically frame Jackson and the other Black Sox as so-called “victims of the system.” Ray’s ball field is a place where the players are all absolved of their transgressions and are known simply for their love of the game (Nathan 2003, 155–56). As Joe says, “I loved the game [. . .] I’d have played for food money” (Kinsella 1982, 8). It is notable that Ray avoids actually asking Jackson about his guilt; indeed, he only thinks of it once, on the first night Jackson shows up (Steele 2011, 115). In his cultural history of the Black Sox scandal, Daniel Nathan notes that Shoeless Joe was at the forefront of a number of literary works and films in the 1980s that re-envisioned the scandal and shifted the public perception of the players in a much more positive direction (2003, 153–56).

The reclusive writer J. D. Salinger, the author of the classic coming-of age novel The Catcher in the Rye (1951), is, of course, also a real-world figure. Like he does in Shoeless Joe, the real Salinger stayed out of the public eye, refused interviews, and threatened to sue those who wrote about him (Cutchins 2002, 74). Donald Morse suggests that since Salinger was so reclusive, he was more “real” in the imaginations of fans than he was in reality (2004, 312). Similarly, most of the rumours that Ray uncovers in his research on Salinger were made up by W. P. Kinsella, as was the interview Salinger gave about baseball that convinces Ray to go to him (Boe 1983, 181; Murray 1987, 49). Thus, Salinger’s “love of baseball” is the novel writer’s fictional creation. W. P. Kinsella could get away with Salinger’s inclusion in the novel because his representation of the man is obviously fictional (e.g., “Jerry” goes off into the unknown with the ghostly ballplayers at the end) and reasonably sympathetic, with no malice intended on Kinsella’s part (Cutchins 2002, 74n5). Such clearly fictional aspects did little to mollify the intensely private author, however. Salinger did not like his inclusion as a character in Shoeless Joe and threatened legal action for the film adaptation, which led to his replacement with the entirely fictional Terrence Mann, played by James Earl Jones (Pellow 1991, 23).

Many readers of Shoeless Joe may be surprised to learn that Archie Graham was a real person who actually played only half an inning of major league baseball and went on to become a small-town doctor in Chisholm, Minnesota. The Chisholm newspaper editorial that Ray reads in the novel actually exists and is included in Graham’s player file at the Baseball Hall of Fame Library (Steele 2011, 121). W. P. Kinsella read about Graham in a baseball encyclopedia and decided to write him into one of his stories. Kinsella himself undertook a research trip to Chisholm, much like Ray and Salinger do in the novel. In an amusing anecdote that illustrates the confusion of fact and fiction, Kinsella told Don Murray that the librarian in Chisholm maintained that J. D. Salinger actually accompanied Kinsella on his research trip (1987, 48). Furthermore, the inclusion of Graham as a character in the novel and film inspired other researchers to write a biography of his life (Friedlander and Reising 2009), further blending the real and the imaginary.

Another fictional character with a real-world stand-in is Eddie Scissons. Although an entirely fictional character, Scissons is based on a man whom Kinsella met on a street corner in Iowa City (the same way Ray meets Eddie), a man who falsely claimed to have played for the Chicago Cubs (Murray 1987, 48). Kinsella later wrote the short story “The Eddie Scissons Syndrome” (1988, 137–52), in which a psychologist references the character in the novel Shoeless Joe—fiction referencing other fiction, as fiction, all by the same author.

The merging of W. P. Kinsella and his narrator, Ray Kinsella, further blends reality and fiction. While it is overly simplistic to conflate author and persona, Kinsella encourages such a reading (Boe 1983, 182), even beyond the shared last name. The similarities are too many to be coincidence. Both W. P. and Ray grew up on their fathers’ baseball stories; both have a deep love for Iowa; both had previous unhappy careers as insurance salesmen; and W. P.’s first wife was named Anne while Ray’s wife is Annie (Morse 1998, 354; Murray 1987, 7; Steele 2011, 192). Such interweaving of reality and fiction often leaves readers guessing what is true and what is made up. Robert Hamblin offers a clever analogy for the “mix of fact and fabrication” in Shoeless Joe and Kinsella’s other work (1992, 3). Kinsella’s readers, he writes, are like batters facing a pitcher with a mix of pitches, never entirely sure what is coming. The clearly factual material is like a hard, straight fastball. We see a lot of curves, as well, when Kinsella delivers “that spin of distortion that fiction puts on straight fact” (4). Sometimes, what Kinsella offers is so obviously surreal fantasy that it is like a knuckleball—a pitch that we know is coming, yet it still deceives and gives trouble (5). Kinsella’s frequent use of “fact-that-turns-out-to-be-fiction, and fiction-that-turns-out-to-be-fact” is like a split-fingered fastball (6–7).

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