Novels for Students

Shoeless Joe

Shoeless Joe
W. P. Kinsella

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Further Reading


Canadian writer W. P. Kinsella's first novel, Shoeless Joe, published in Boston in 1982, is an ingenious baseball story that smoothly weaves together fact and fantasy. The narrator, Ray Kinsella, is a baseball fanatic and dreamer who owns a farm in Iowa. One day he hears a mysterious voice saying, "If you build it, he will come." Ray believes this is an instruction to build a baseball field at his farm and that the "he" is his father's hero, Shoeless Joe Jackson, one of the greatest baseball players of all time. Jackson was banned from baseball for life following the Black Sox Scandal of 1919, in which he and seven other players accepted bribes to throw the World Series. From this premise, Kinsella spins his tale full of magic and nostalgia. Shoeless Joe shows up, and Ray continues to pursue his dream, even traveling cross-country to kidnap the reclusive writer J. D. Salinger, who joins Ray in his quest to restore the broken dreams of the past.

Set in idyllic rural Iowa and told in lyrical, poetic, sometimes sentimental prose, Shoeless Joe is a story of the power of the imagination and the triumph of love. It is about dreams and hope and trust and the fulfillment of long-buried desires. The dominant note throughout is the characters' consuming love of baseball, which is presented almost as a religion, and is contrasted, favorably, with the spiritual dryness of conventional Christianity.

Shoeless Joe was made into the popular movie Field of Dreams in 1989, and for a while the words "If you build it, he will come" became almost as well-known in American popular culture as the famous phrase "Say it ain't so, Joe," allegedly spoken by a young fan to Shoeless Joe during the Black Sox Scandal.

Author Biography

William Patrick Kinsella was born on May 25, 1935, on a farm in Edmonton, in northern Alberta, Canada, the son of John Matthew and Olive Mary (Elliott) Kinsella. Kinsella did not attend school until fifth grade, but he caught up quickly and graduated from high school in 1953. After graduation, he worked at a variety of jobs in Edmonton. He was a government clerk, an insurance investigator, and then owner of a restaurant. He did not attend college until he was in his late thirties, receiving a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Victoria, British Columbia, in 1974. He then received a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Iowa in 1978 and taught English for five years at the University of Calgary, Alberta, from 1978 to 1983.

Kinsella always thought of himself as a writer and published his first story when he was seventeen. His first story collection was Dance Me Outside (1977), about the Native North Americans of the Ermineskin Reservation in Alberta, Canada. Born Indian (1981) and Mocassin Telegraph (1983) were similar collections. Kinsella's novel Shoeless Joe (1982) was his first popular success, and it was made into the movie Field of Dreams, starring Kevin Costner, in 1989.

Since 1983, Kinsella has been a full-time writer and has carved a niche for himself as a writer of baseball fiction. In addition to Shoeless Joe, he has written several more novels, including The Iowa Baseball Confederacy (1986), Box Socials (1991), and The Winter Helen Dropped By (1995). Story collections focusing on baseball include Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa (1980), the title story that formed the basis of the novel Shoeless Joe, and The Further Adventures of Slugger McBatt (1988), which was reissued as Go the Distance (1995). Kinsella's most recent publications are Magic Time (1998), a novel about a college all-star who revives his baseball career by moving to Iowa, and Japanese Baseball (2000), a new collection of baseball stories.

Kinsella was awarded a Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship in 1982; he has also received a fiction award from the Canadian Authors Association (1982), a Vancouver writing award (1987), and the Stephen Leacock medal (1987). He was decorated with the Order of Canada in 1994, and in 1987 he was named Author of the Year by the Canadian Library Association.

Kinsella married Mildred Irene Clay in 1965, and they had three children before divorcing in 1978. In 1978, Kinsella married Ann Ilene Knight. They were divorced in 1997. Kinsella married for the third time, in 1999, to Barbara L. Turner.

Plot Summary

Chapter 1: Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa

Shoeless Joe begins with the narrator, Ray Kinsella, a young farmer in Iowa, describing how one day when sitting on the verandah of his home, he heard the voice of a ballpark announcer saying, "If you build it, he will come." Ray, who is a highly imaginative man and great lover of baseball, takes this as an instruction to build a baseball field in one of the cornfields at his farm. At first, he builds only a left field. Ray believes that the "he" that the voice refers to is Shoeless Joe Jackson, who gained no-toriety for his part in a bribery scandal that marred the 1919 World Series.

One night, baseball players appear on the field, including Shoeless Joe in left field, and Ray settles down to watch him play. In Ray's eyes, the scene is as complete as at any major-league park he has visited. But he notices that Shoeless Joe is the only player who appears to have any substance; the others are shadowy, ghost-like. Ray talks to Shoeless Joe, who tells him about his love of baseball, and Ray promises that he will finish the whole field.

Chapter 2: They Tore Down the Polo Grounds in 1964

Ray finishes building the entire field; it takes him three baseball seasons. One by one, the socalled Unlucky Eight, the Black Sox baseball players who were banned for life in 1920, appear. Now only the right fielder and the catcher are still shadowy. Ray's daughter Karin also has the ability to see the games that take place. Next, Ray hears the baseball announcer say, mysteriously, "Ease his pain." Ray intuitively understands this to be a message about the reclusive writer J. D. Salinger. On the basis of a newspaper article he once read, Ray believes that Salinger is a baseball fan but that he has not seen a game live for over twenty-five years. Ray decides to visit Salinger in New Hampshire and take him to a baseball game at Fenway Park in Boston. Another link that connects Ray to Salinger is the fact that in one of his short stories, Salinger created a character named Ray Kinsella. There is also a character named Richard Kinsella in Salinger's book, The Catcher in the Rye, and Ray has a twin brother by that name.

On his long drive, Ray stops to attend ball games in Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Yankee Stadium in New York. When he reaches New Hampshire, he waylays Salinger outside his home and, in a mock-kidnapping, persuades the surprised writer to accompany him to Fenway Park. Ray tells his story, and they talk about writing. At the Boston Red Sox game, Ray tries to get Salinger to talk about his pain, but Salinger says he has none. During the game, Ray receives yet another mysterious message, this time from the scoreboard. It concerns a baseball player named Moonlight Graham who played once for the New York Giants in 1905. Ray knows that he has another assignment to fulfill, and he receives a message telling him to "Go the distance." Salinger also hears this, and he and Ray agree to travel to the small town of Chisholm, Minnesota, to discover what they can about Archie "Moonlight" Graham.

Chapter 3: The Life and Times of Moonlight Graham

As they make the long drive to Minnesota, where Graham died in 1965, Salinger tells Ray that he also received a message saying, "Fulfill the dream." They visit the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, and get information about Graham's one and only major-league game. When they arrive in Chisholm, they discover from a newspaper obituary that Graham had been the town's doctor for many years and was deeply loved in his community.

At night Ray goes walking, and through some magical transformation, he encounters Doc Graham as a seventy-five-year-old man. The year is 1955. They go to Graham's office at the school, where Graham explains how he got the nickname Moonlight. As they talk about his career, he says that if he had one wish, it would be to hold a bat in a major-league game, something that he never did in his career.

Next morning, Salinger and Ray decide to go back to Iowa so that Salinger can see the baseball field. On their way out of Chisholm, they pick up a young man in a baseball uniform who is looking for a place to play. The young man says his name is Archie Graham.

Chapter 4: The Oldest Living Chicago Cub

The three of them head for Iowa, stopping off in Minneapolis to explore a baseball field at night. Going on to Iowa City, Ray stops at the Bishop Cridge Friendship Center, where his friend, ninety-one-year-old Eddie Scissons, the oldest living Chicago Cub, lives. Ray invites Eddie to his farm because he wants to show him the baseball field. Ray has also received another obscure message about sharing and betrayal that he assumes is about Eddie.

When they reach the farm, Ray finds his twin brother Richard there, whom he has not seen for over twenty years. Richard works with a carnival that has stopped in Iowa City. Ray takes his other friends for a tour of the baseball field and knows he will only be able to answer their questions when the magic unfolds once more. In the meantime, his financial situation is increasingly desperate. His brother-in-law, Mark, is trying to buy the farm, and Mark announces that he has the legal right to foreclose on the farm if Ray does not get up to date on the mortgage payments. Mark and his business partner, Bluestein, are buying up farms in the area and using computer farming to modernize them, a concept that Ray dislikes.

When the magic happens again, there is a new player on the field—the catcher for the White Sox. His name is Johnny Kinsella, Ray's father, but Ray cannot bring himself to face him. On the field, Moonlight Graham gets his wish.

An exasperated Mark tells Ray that Eddie has been lying about his past, that he'd never played for the Chicago Cubs. But Ray has known this for a long time anyway. Not long after this, Eddie gets his wish when, as Kid Scissons, he pitches for the Chicago Cubs on Ray's magical field. But Eddie does not perform well. He urges Ray to speak to his father. Shortly after, Eddie dies. He is buried at the baseball field in his Chicago Cubs uniform.

Mark and Bluestein arrive and claim they have legal temporary custody of the farm. Ray orders them off the property at gunpoint, but the confrontation ends when Karin, Ray's young daughter, takes a fall. She is unconscious and has difficulty breathing, until young Moonlight Graham magically metamorphoses into the older Doc Graham and saves her life.

Salinger envisions a way that Ray can pay off his debts and keep the farm: the baseball field will become a magnet for tourists. Just as he says this, the first cars full of visitors begin to arrive. And that night, Ray plucks up courage to speak to his father. Richard, who up to this point has been unable to see what the others see, speaks to him as well.

Chapter 5: The Rapture of J. D. Salinger

When Ray learns that the players have invited Salinger out after the game, he is jealous until he realizes that, as a result of this, Salinger may well get his deepest wish, which is to play baseball at the Polo Grounds, the home ballpark of the New York Giants that was torn down in 1964.


Abner Bluestein

Abner Bluestein is the hard-nosed business partner of Mark, Ray Kinsella's brother-in-law, who wants to evict Ray from his farm.

Archie Graham

Archie Graham, also known as Moonlight Graham, is based on a real person who played once for the New York Giants in 1905. He appears in the novel in two forms. First, he is an old man, Doc Graham, a doctor in the small Minnesota town of Chisholm. Ray meets him in a magical episode of time travel that takes him back to the year 1955 when Graham is seventy-five years old. Doc Graham has some eccentric habits, such as chewing paper and spitting it out, but he is a good-hearted man who is loved and respected in his community, where he takes care of all who seek his assistance. He tells Ray that he got his nickname one night when, after a minor league game, he went outside the motel for a walk, dressed in his baseball uniform. A teammate spotted him, and he was Moonlight Graham ever after. Graham also appears in the novel as a young man dressed in a baseball uniform who travels from Minnesota to Iowa with Salinger and Ray in search of a game to play. He ends up playing on Ray's fantasy field and thus gets the chance to bat in the major leagues.


Gypsy is the girlfriend of Richard Kinsella. She works in the change booth at the carnival. She is tough but also kind and wise, and she has an open heart that enables her to perceive all the baseball games taking place in Ray's magic field.

Media Adaptations

  • Shoeless Joe was made into the movie Field of Dreams, directed by Phil Alden Robinson and starring Kevin Costner, in 1989.

Shoeless Joe Jackson

Shoeless Joe Jackson was one of the greatest baseball players of all time. His career with the Chicago White Sox ended in 1920 when he admitted to being involved in a plot to throw the 1919 World Series. He was banned from the game for life. In the novel, Ray believes that although Shoeless Joe may have accepted money from gamblers, he did not deliberately throw the series but was the victim of greedy baseball owners. Shoeless Joe is one of Ray's heroes, and he is the first baseball player to appear on Ray's baseball field. Shoeless Joe is presented not only as a legendary baseball player but also as a man who loved the game and who would have played just for food money. He tells Ray that being banned for life was the equivalent of having part of himself amputated.

Annie Kinsella

Annie Kinsella is Ray Kinsella's red-haired, twenty-four-year-old wife. She is pretty, full of life and good humor, and very loving. She always supports her husband and encourages him to fulfill his dreams, never once reproaching him for being impractical, even as their debts mount.

Johnny Kinsella

Johnny Kinsella is Ray's father. He served in World War I and was gassed at Passchendaele, after which he settled in Chicago and became a White Sox fan. He also played semi-pro baseball in Florida and California before marrying and settling in Montana. At the time of the story, he has been dead for twenty years. He and his son Ray appear to have been close, and he instilled his love of baseball into Ray. Shoeless Joe was his hero. Johnny Kinsella appears in the novel as a young man, playing catcher in games at Ray's baseball park. At first, Ray does not know how to approach him, but later he does so, and he realizes that he can talk with his father about many things.

Karin Kinsella

Karin Kinsella is Ray's five-year-old daughter. Like her father, she is gifted with imagination and has no trouble seeing the baseball games that take place in the cornfield at the farm.

Ray Kinsella

Ray Kinsella is the narrator of the story. He was raised in Montana, and his father passed on to him a love of baseball. Ray later moved to Iowa to study, and he fell in love with the state and decided to stay. He married Annie, the daughter of his landlady. Unable to find congenial work, Ray took a job as a life insurance salesman, which he hated. Then, Annie suggested that they rent and later buy a farm. Although he has little expertise in farming and machinery of any kind baffles him, Ray takes great pride in the farm. However, times are such that it is very hard for a small farmer to flourish, and he falls badly into debt. Impractical in matters of money, he makes almost no effort to right his finances. His wife's family dislikes him, and he has equally negative feelings about them. Ray also disikes organized religion, big business, and people in authority who do not use their authority well.

Whatever his shortcomings in practical life, Ray is gifted with imagination, an open heart, and the ability to conceive a great dream and work at it until it comes true. When he hears the mysterious voice saying, "If you build it, he will come," he immediately understands what it means and sets about building the baseball field. He is also motivated by a desire to rekindle the enthusiasm for baseball of his favorite writer, J. D. Salinger, and to heal Salinger's pain. Ray drives a thousand miles cross-country to make this happen. In the end, Ray is vindicated. His dreams come true because of the depths of his own belief in them. He also becomes the agent whereby the dreams of others can be fulfilled, but in this he realizes that he is only playing his part in some larger plan, the origins of which he does not speculate about. Ultimately, what is most important to Ray is not baseball but love of family and friends.

Richard Kinsella

Richard Kinsella is Ray's twin brother. He and Ray have not seen each other since the morning of their sixteenth birthday. On that day, Richard quarreled with their father and walked out of the house. No one in the family has seen or heard of him since, until one day he shows up at Ray's farm. It transpires that he works with a traveling carnival that has stopped in Iowa City. Richard is at first unable to see what happens in the baseball cornfield, but he asks Ray to teach him how to do it. …