In 1979 on his little corn farm outside Iowa City, baseball fanatic Ray Kinsella hears an announcer's voice: "If you build it, he will come." He knows exactly what the voice means and builds a baseball field amongst the corn, and sure enough he comes: Shoeless Joe Jackson, one of the "Unlucky Eight", White Sox players thrown out of the sport for fixing the 1919 World Series. The rest of the eight come too, but the voice has more instructions for Ray - not least seeking out reclusive author J. D. Salinger. Ray obeys without question, yet all along debt threatens to cost him the farm.
I've never seen Field of Dreams, but I'll tell you now: I loved Shoeless Joe. It's a book that somehow resonated with me deeply; perhaps because of the names, the characters, the situation. I'm not sure. I've never watched a game of baseball in my life, but as the Philadelphia Inquirer said, it's "not so much about baseball as it is about dreams, magic, life, and what is quintessentially American". I think I'll be going to a game when I'm in New York.
But let's back up a bit. Why do I love it? First, there's the pace. The voice speaks to Ray on page 3 (the first page of prose); Shoeless Joe shows up by page 11. This is not typical of my experience with magic realism, which I suppose is what you'd have to call Shoeless Joe. In films in this genre there's a lot of resistance on the part of the character chosen by the magic; not so here. Ray's wife Annie and daughter Karin never question it either, indeed are aware of it almost from the beginning. Ray's doubts come only when his later instructions force him to seek out others and share his miracle.
I said I made personal connections to the book, and partly that's the names: several characters share theirs with important people in my life. A central theme is Ray's strong bond with his long-dead father, and father-son stories always hit me in my emotional centre. But there's also the treatment of religion. Surprisingly for a book about redemption after death, there's a thread of atheism running through the book. Ray's not a Christian, but Annie's mother is, and not a flattering one. Religion is only ever presented as bluster, even late in the book when certain characters react to the baseball field in a religious fashion. Perhaps the book is spiritual, but it's more about dreams than anything else. The fantasy of recapturing things lost is a powerful one for us all.
A word about the baseball business: it's not overwhelming. It's just a theme, Kinsella's specialty, and you learn everything you need to know in the book, though when the occasional batting average was mentioned I was clueless. Is .300 better or worse than .500? It didn't really matter. Baseball is explained as the conduit for this peace and redemption quite beautifully in the closing pages of the book.
So it's a delightful book, though I don't know if it could work if it were to be written now, set in 2009. Baseball, like other major league sports, just doesn't seem the same any more. We see it as a job, a business, a career with fame attached, though baseball, like cricket (or at least test cricket), seems to have weathered the decades better than others. It recalls a simpler time, a time before commercialisation (another theme in the book, depressingly just as relevant 30 years later).
Page count: 265
Book's title mentioned on page: never!
Best name encountered: Karin (it's my beloved's name, and never shows up anywhere, so imagine my delight!)
New words: none really, though I learned some more about certain baseball terms
Inner Five-year-old score: 3
Fun Wikipedia fact: W. P. Kinsella became less of baseball fan after the 1994 Major League Baseball strike, and is now a noted tournament Scrabble player.
...and on we go! Four books left; four months left. I'll start The Blind Assassin tonight.