yoknapawtapha and the field of dreams

You could not dream this place. In the hard glint of early morning everything is over-exposure and shadow.

You could not dream this place. In the hard glint of early morning everything is over-exposure and shadow.

From the cabin the land takes itself to the lake lazily, a long ambulation of switch grass, wild rose, fir, pine, aspen and cultured lawns beaten out of the semi-desert heat.

The gravel road looks plunked down, an after-thought almost, as if an attachment to the outside world was a hasty addition.

The lake itself sits like a patch of sky against the prickled skin of the mountain. The trees above it are mostly fir, many surrendering to bud worm, so that there’s a reddish tint to the mountainside.

Some nights when the breeze dies away there are two moons here, the water so calm you feel as though you could fall up or down, away so easily. Like Peter Pan’s world beckoning.

In the high heat of the day it descends into a sepulchral quiet. Even the birds cease their flit and flap between trees.

Only when the workers return does the sound of the modern world return here. Then it’s a small crescendo of motors, kids, dogs, music and greetings yelled across an acre of space. Afterward, evening pulls everything downward into ease and there is only the breeze, only space reasserting itself.

When I became a novelist in 1993, I wanted to build a place like this in my mind and in my words. There was a grand tale to be told in a setting like this.

I believed that if I worked long enough and hard enough at the craft of writing I would one day write that story, set it down in a resonant place, populate it with hardy, eccentric characters and bring a sense of reality to a fictional world.

I came to that naturally enough. The writers I admired had all managed to effect that in their work and I had an unassailable list of influences. I’d read and loved Dickens, of course, followed Dante into hell, sailed with Ahab after the great white whale and gleaned the gentrified manners of the 1920s with Tennessee Williams.

In my reading I’d been to Russia, Sweden, Africa, Asia, Latin America, Germany and to the top of the Himalayas.

But nothing ever captured me as much as the swelter and dust of Yoknapawtapha County. When William Faulkner set his characters down in that rural South I found a world I never wanted to leave.

He wrote 15 books about the place and each one was like a doorway to my sense of self. A Mississippi of the soul. After I read Sartoris I had to go back.

Now, I wasn’t a poor white, an under educated black or had any experience at all like the Restoration era immediately after the Civil War.

Those years leading right up to the Depression gave Faulkner the material he needed to create a people and a place that were layered with the dust of history, labour and strife. But it was an amalgam of people displaced by the writhing of a country coming to terms with itself — and I could understand that.

Faulkner wasn’t always an easy writer to get. His writing sometimes was as dense as a hawthorn thicket. His language was filled with allegory, symbolism, multiple narrators and the particular chips and chinks of regional talk.

His sentences sometimes could meander like the broad snake of the Mississippi itself. But he painted a picture nonetheless and my world grew because of it.

It was the late 1970s and I’d just become a writer, a professional, earning a wage with words. Faulkner awoke the storyteller in me and I wanted to create worlds like Yoknapawtapha County.

But I was a journalist then, telling other people’s stories, restrained by facts but growing in appreciation of my new abilities. Fiction was still the joy of a lamp and a chair.

Then came Shoeless Joe. W.P. Kinsella wrote the pre-eminent book on baseball and when I read it in 1982 I was snared as easily as a lazy fly ball in an oversized fielder’s mitt.

Kinsella was no Faulkner but he knew how to spin a tale and the mix of magic, spirituality and baseball was irresistible. Here was an Iowa that I’d never visited but could see as clearly as an infield under the lights.

From Kinsella I learned that spirituality, magic and dreams are all a part of our day-to-day reality. Because of that they could be sewn into a story and cause it to become haunting and unforgettable. Still, I was writing in another form and fiction was a dream in itself.

Then the movie Field of Dreams came out in 1989. It was the film version of Shoeless Joe and the story that came alive on the screen was close to the way I’d seen it in my mind. I loved that movie as I’ve loved no other. I have it on my shelf in DVD now and I watch it again every year or so.

It showed me how what’s seen with the imagination and felt with the soul can become real. It haunted me. It called to me.

I was back in print journalism then after stints in television and radio, even won a national award for my writing, but I was under the charm of storytelling and it wouldn’t leave me alone.

Well, I left journalism in 1993, lived in a friend’s basement and wrote my first novel, Keeper’n Me. It was published in 1994 and I’ve been a storyteller ever since. There’ve been three other novels and a memoir, with a lot more stories in various forms yet to arrive.

Writing stories is my field of dreams. It’s where the tumblers of the universe all click into place. It’s where my heart lies, here, looking out over a place I could not dream.

See, Peter Pan’s world is never that far away. It’s as close as your heart and always just a dream away.

Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He recently won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels.