There seem to be two dominant strains in W. P. Kinsella’s writing. The first, including novels Shoeless Joe (1982)—which became the hit
film Field of Dreams (1989)—and The Iowa Baseball Confederacy (1986), are nostalgia-
soaked tales in which simple values, baseball and a dash of idealism combine to make unlikely dreams come true. But in several of his other more satirical works, the British Columbia author has demonstrated a knack for stirring controversy as well. In particular, many native leaders have charged that in his five popular short-story collections set on the Hobbema reserve in central Alberta, Kinsella has deliberately exploited racist and sexist stereotypes for dramatic effect. His new novel is an unusual— and not entirely successful—hybrid of the wide-eyed wonder and biting caricature of his earlier works. Switching his focus to life in a non-native northern Alberta backwater in the 1940s, Box Socials combines a syrupy ode to times past with an often scathing portrait of small-town small-mindedness.
The novel comprises the boyhood memories
of Jamie O’Day, the only child of John and Olivia, farmers in an area of Alberta known as the Six Towns. “That designation,” the narrator muses, “never showed up on a map, and almost everyone lived near a town, not in a town.” Kinsella, who is 56, was raised near the northern Alberta farming community of Darwell, 60 km west of Edmonton, and Box Socials has the feel of an author itching to revisit an era long dead—and, perhaps, to stop and mock a
few former acquaintances along the way. But although the book has moments of humor and insight, it never really makes the transition from merely frivolous to genuinely funny. And at times, when Kinsella seems to be aiming for satire, he instead serves up commentary that is downright scornful of his subjects.
Despite its shortcomings, Box Socials amply demonstrates Kinsella’s gift for bringing to life what O’Day describes as “a potpourri of humanity.” An oddball combination of farmers, shopkeepers, musicians and indigents dependent on relief—“a dirtier word than son of a bitch, and even the swear words with God’s name in them,” according to Jamie’s parents—they fill their days with elaborate wedding parties, baseball tournaments and gossip sessions in which few who are absent are free from being slandered. Their nights they reserve for drinking a local concoction
called “Heathen’s Rapture, or bring-on-blindness, logging-boot-to-the-side-of-the-head home brew,” and attending occasional “box socials,” in which the men of the community bid for unmarked lunches prepared by the town’s womenfolk—and a date with the maker of the meal that they acquire.
Describing their lives, Kinsella demonstrates a keen eye for the small details that can bring a character to life. About the arthritic pianist who accompanies the silent films playing at the local community hall, the author writes that her eyelashes were “covered in so much mascara they each looked like a giant spider leg.” And, as with his Hobbema tales, Kinsella uses unbridled exaggeration to transform everyday occurrences into memorable events. Rather than letting him simply die, Kinsella writes of one character that he
“pushed back from the table after a feed of partridge parts and fried turnips, unbuckled his belt and passed away.”
But too often, the author crosses the border from caricature to derision—particularly in his portrayal of women. When they are not gossiping about one another, the women of the Six Towns seem to have an extremely limited range of pastimes. Those include smirking (and advising the next generation on the satisfaction that comes from it), bickering among themselves about trivial matters, and withholding sexual favors from baseball players who fail to hit home runs. When all else fails, they simply like to talk, as in the case of a character named Mrs. Bear Lundquist, “who had perfected the art of taking a long, deep breath inwards, while the words were still spewing out, so that theoretically she was a perpetual talking device.”
Such portraits can at times be entertaining—in part because of Kinsella’s utter disregard for the politically correct. But they are not enough to transform what reads like a group of short stories into a substantial novel, and in the end, Box Socials lacks a central character or story line strong enough to make its assorted parts into a coherent whole. While his memories are chock-full of vivid detail, the young O’Day plays a mostly passive role in the novel, failing to impose any real order on the yams he spins. Indeed, the book’s various chapters resemble the patchwork quilts common in communities like the Six Towns: the whole is colorful and homey, but is manufactured from odds and ends, rather than the maker’s finest cloth.
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