Back in the early 1980’s two things were happening simultaneously. 1. A Canadian writer named W.P. Kinsella was launching his new book called Shoeless Joe 2. A struggling actor from Ohio named Dwier Brown was trying his hand at acting. While Kinsella’s book gained traction, Brown’s career, aside from playing “Stuart Cleary” in The Thorn Birds and being cast in a few plays, did not.
Their stories merged in 1988 when Shoeless Joe was adapted to screen as the beloved film, Field of Dreams, with Kevin Costner, then at his career apex. Dwier Brown was cast as John Kinsella, Ray’s (Costner’s) father. It’s a small but pivotal role, set in the day’s “magic hour,” making the viewer realize that Field of Dreams is about so much more than baseball.
When it was complete, not much was expected of Field of Dreams. Yes, it had Burt Lancaster in his final role and the incomparable James Earl Jones as Ray’s unlikely road trip companion, but no one could’ve guessed that this quiet little film would become the juggernaut that it is today. The Lansing farm in Iowa, where Dreams was filmed, still draws thousands of fathers and sons every year hoping to recapture the magic as they “have a catch” on that famous baseball diamond in the middle of a cornfield. A diamond inspired by the mystical phrase “If you build it, he will come.”
While Dwier Brown’s role is small–he appears in some early photographs and in the last five minutes of the movie–its impact on his life has been enormous. It is this impact that his book, If You Build It, is based. Part autobiography, part behind-the-scenes of the film, Brown sensitively shows how his whole life led up to that role and the part it would play in years to come. He also adds anecdotes, snapshots of the many times that people would recognize him and share their own personal stories. Stories of men and their dads watching the movie together, feeling their bond strengthen, and stories of estranged fathers and sons feeling the need to reconnect and forgive, inspired by the movie’s message.
That is what makes this book so special. It does not focus heavily on ideal father/son relationships. It acknowledges the honest truth that all parent/child relationships are complicated, including Ray and John in the movie, Dwier Brown and his father, and his father before him. As a daughter who had a complicated relationship with my father, I found this extremely refreshing. The book is beautifully written, with a rhythmic fluidity and plenty of heart-tugging tidbits that keep your interest until the very end.
Being familiar with the film is very helpful, but not completely essential, to read If You Build It. I recommend watching the movie and reading the book, in that order. Both are very much worth your time and will restore some of your faith in family and its potential.